Arrested Mourning

Memory of the Nazi Camps in Poland, 1944–1950

by Zofia Woycicka (Author)
Monographs 312 Pages
Open Access

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Part I. People
  • Chapter 1: Former Prisoners: “Finest Sons of the Fatherland” or “Hapless Victims of the Camps”?
  • Repatriation and Assistance
  • Former Prisoners Organise Themselves
  • Politicisation of the PZbWP
  • The Struggle against “Victimhood”
  • Chapter 2: Our “Jewish Comrades”? Who Belongs to the Community of Victims?
  • Anti-Semitism
  • Isolation
  • Jews in the PZbWP
  • “A Separate Death”?
  • “Heroes of the Ghetto” or Passive Victims?
  • Other Groups of Victims
  • Chapter 3: At the “Limit of a Certain Morality”: Polish Debates on the Conduct of Concentration Camp Prisoners
  • War Crimes Trials in Poland, 1944-1950
  • Controversies Surrounding the Trials of Prisoner Functionaries
  • Beyond the Courtroom
  • Defending the Image of the Political Prisoner
  • Part II. Places
  • Chapter 4: Sites of Memory, Sites of Forgetting
  • Majdanek and Auschwitz: Vying for “Pre-eminence”
  • “The Death of Birkenau”
  • In the Background: Stutthof and Gross-Rosen
  • Forgotten Places: Chełmno, Bełżec, Treblinka, Sobibór
  • Chapter 5: Disputes over the Method of Commemorating the Sites of Former Concentration Camps
  • “Evidence of Crimes” or “A Collection of Curiosities”?
  • Cemeteries or “Battlefields”?
  • “Jewish Cemeteries” or “Places of Martyrdom of the Polish Nation and of Other Nations”?
  • Chapter 6: A Christian Monument to Jewish Martyrdom? An Unrealised Project from 1947 to Commemorate the Site of the Former Death Camp at Treblinka
  • The “Polish Klondike”: Genesis of the Project
  • Iconography of the Memorial
  • Epilogue: Auschwitz—“A Tacky Stall of Cheap Anti-imperialist Propaganda”
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • A. Sources
  • B. Studies
  • Index
  • Series index

← 8 | 9 → Introduction

In the mid-1980s, after protracted efforts, the Carmelite Order was granted permission by the Polish authorities to establish a convent in one of the buildings of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. This decision sparked protest among Jewish groups. Two conferences were convened in Geneva, attended by representatives of the Catholic Church and Jewish organisations in Poland and abroad, during which it was agreed that the Carmelite nuns would be moved to a soon-to-be-established Centre for Dialogue and Prayer located at a certain distance from the Memorial Museum. In the years to follow, however, no progress was made on this matter. Meanwhile, the events of 1989—the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the opening of borders, and the Round Table talks between Solidarity and Poland’s Communist government—led to an escalation of the dispute. In mid-July 1989, barely a few weeks after Poland’s first free elections, the American Rabbi Avi Weiss and a group of his supporters scaled the walls of the Carmelite convent to protest against the continued presence of the nuns within the perimeter of the camp. Weiss and his colleagues were forcibly removed from the site by local workers. To prevent further conflict, the Vatican confirmed the existing arrangements concerning the construction of the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer and the relocation of the Carmelite nuns, which eventually took place in 1993.

The dispute did not end there, however. In June 1998, a group of Polish nationalists occupied the former courtyard of the Carmelite convent and put up several crosses. The purpose of this action was to protest against the authorities’ plan to remove the huge cross that had been erected on the site in 1989 and which originated from an altar at which Pope John Paul II had celebrated Mass during his first visit to Poland in 1979. Although both the Polish government and the Catholic Church distanced themselves from the protest, neither had the courage to intervene. It was not until several months later, in May 1999, that all the crosses, whose number had in the meantime risen to 300, were moved to a nearby Franciscan monastery. The “Papal cross”, however, remained in its original location.

Although Polish–Jewish relations continue to be tainted by conflict, the kind of dispute that took place over Auschwitz in the 1990s would seem unthinkable nowadays. In the past decade, Polish notions about the history of Auschwitz have undergone a significant transformation. Public opinion research shows that an increasing number of Poles see Auschwitz as a place primarily associated with the Holocaust. In 1995, 47 per cent of respondents regarded Auschwitz as a “place of Polish martyrdom” above all else, while only eight per cent considered it to be ← 9 | 10 → “primarily a place where Jews were exterminated”.1 Research conducted in 2010 showed that, for the first time, more people saw Auschwitz primarily as a place where Jews were exterminated (47.4 per cent) than as a place of Polish martyrdom (39.2 per cent).2 Yet, despite these changes, there are still major differences between Poland, Israel, Germany, and other West European countries in the way the history and significance of Auschwitz is understood and, more broadly, in how the events of the Second World War are interpreted.

In 1999/2000, when the final act in the dispute over the Auschwitz crosses was being played out, I was on an academic scholarship at the University of Jena, where I attended Professor Lutz Niethammer’s seminar on memory of the Second World War. It fell to me to explain to my fellow participants the background of the conflict that was taking place in Poland. The more I immersed myself in the topic, the more apparent it became that the dispute could not be explained solely in terms of Polish nationalism and anti-Semitism, although these factors certainly played a significant role. At the root of this “conflict of memory” lay genuine differences in the wartime experience and the impossibility of communicating and comparing that experience across the Iron Curtain. To understand the essence of the dispute, it was above all necessary to analyse the circumstances under which memory of the Second World War evolved during the Communist period. But it would not be enough simply to recreate the official historical policy of the Polish authorities. Even in a totalitarian or authoritarian state, which the People’s Republic undoubtedly was, historical memory is never formed exclusively from the top down. The key questions seemed to be: what were the mechanisms that shaped the public image of the past during the Communist period? Was that image negotiable, and if it was, how did the disputes and negotiations proceed? Who participated in them and on what terms, and who was excluded and how?

The subject of this book, therefore, is the process by which “social memory” of the Second World War took shape in Poland. In my study, I rely on a theory developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s by British scholars associated with the Popular Memory Group, among them Richard Johnson and Graham Dawson. Analysis of the oral history testimonies they collected led Johnson and Dawson to conclude that there exist two types of social memory: “popular memory” and “dominant memory”. They define popular memory as individual recollections and representations of the past that are mainly transmitted through everyday life, in conversations with friends and family. Dominant memory, on the other hand, consists of those narratives that find expression in the public realm and thus shape social representations of the past; it is created by the “historical apparatus”, ← 10 | 11 → which comprises a myriad of public institutions such as schools, public and private media, the civil service, as well as civic organisations and associations. The concepts of popular and dominant memory should be seen as Weberian “ideal types”; in reality, the boundaries between these two spheres remain fluid. Popular memory constantly strives to break through into the public realm and assume a dominant position. Defining the concept of dominant memory in greater detail, Johnson and Dawson write:

This term points to the power and pervasiveness of historical representations, their connections with dominant institutions and the part they play in winning consent and building alliances in the process of formal politics. But we do not mean to imply that conceptions of the past that acquire a dominance in the field of public representations are either monolithically installed or everywhere believed in. Not all the historical representations that win access to the public field are ‘dominant’. The field is crossed by competing constructions of the past, often at war with each other. Dominant memory is produced in the course of these struggles and is always open to contestation. We do want to insist, however, that there are real processes of domination in the historical field. Certain representations achieve centrality and luxuriate grandly; others are marginalized or excluded or reworked.3

Several historians interested in the changing memory of the First and Second World Wars in Europe, notably Jay Winter, Emmanuel Sivan, Pieter Lagrou, Amir Weiner, and Harold Marcuse, rely on similar assumptions.4 Their main focus is the role that “agents of memory”—in other words, organisations or institutions that actively seek to promote and consolidate a particular historical interpretation—play in the creation of dominant memory. All members of a given community, including intellectual elites, historians, writers, journalists, and artists, may participate in these negotiations, but the greatest importance is attributed to “memory groups” (milieux de mémoire). The basis for the emergence of a memory group is a community linked by shared historical experience and a conception of the past which is shaped by that experience; it very often also has common needs and interests. Such memory groups include, for instance, Polish former concentration camp prisoners, members of the Polish Home Army, and German expellees. Usually these groups have an institutionalised structure, although some ← 11 | 12 → may exist without their own organisation. For a memory group to exist, there must be communication within the given community and an ability to undertake joint action. Harold Marcuse explains the concept as follows:

The vague but popular term “collective memory” can be used to refer to a set of more specific images of and opinions about the past held by members of what I call a memory group. Such groups usually share common experiences and goals, as well as images of the past. Jewish Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe, German SS veterans and members of the French Resistance would be examples of memory groups. Other groups with common but unrelated historical experience, such as victims of forced sterilization, army deserters, or forced laborers, only become memory groups when they begin to share their memories. Individuals who accept the memories, values, and aspirations become part of a memory group; members who no longer share them, leave it.5

Memory groups are sometimes established along political lines. Thus, for instance, in post-war France there were two competing organisations of former concentration camp inmates and members of the resistance—the Gaullist Fédération Nationale des Déportés et Internés de la Résistance and the Communist-dominated Fédération Nationale des Déportés et Internés Résistants et Patriotes. However, as Pieter Lagrou points out, these groups were founded not so much on shared political beliefs as on the common experience of their members. Memory groups may also have particular interests that do not necessarily accord with the views of the political parties to which their members feel an affinity. Aside from propagating their own image of the past, they usually have other goals, too, such as organising self-help campaigns or lobbying the authorities to gain various social privileges. Of course, the activities of memory groups are necessarily limited by the lifespan of the participants and witnesses to a given historical event. In time, these groups become fragmented as members die out and organisations cease to exist. What remains, in the words of Jay Winter, is a “national framework”, “a thin cover over a host of associative forms arduously constructed over years by thousands of people, mostly obscure”.6

Aside from memory groups, the aforementioned historians also point to other agents of memory, which include, principally, representatives of the central and local state administration. With wide-ranging powers and significant financial resources at their disposal, civil servants can influence public discourse by, for instance, punishing or granting amnesty to war criminals, setting school curricula, decreeing national holidays and awarding state decorations, financing the construction of museums and monuments, and distributing social privileges. Such activities may be collectively termed “historical policy” (Geschichtspolitik). ← 12 | 13 → Irrespective of whether historical policy is conducted by the government of a democratic state, or of an authoritarian or totalitarian one, its principal goals are usually the same: to legitimise authority and the existing social system and to strengthen group identity.

The above model describing the mechanisms by which collective memory is formed was developed mainly on the basis of research that concerns civil societies: Lagrou analyses the disputes over the interpretation of the Second World War in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France in the years 1945-1965; Marcuse attempts to reconstruct the history of the conflicts around the creation of the memorial museum in Dachau in West Germany; and Jay Winter explores the process by which representations of the First World War took shape in West European countries. The question arises, therefore, to what extent this theory can be applied to authoritarian or totalitarian states, where citizens have far fewer possibilities to organise themselves or to articulate their views and interests. As the Polish sociologist Barbara Szacka notes, “in non-democratic regimes, where the dominance of the state is all too evident and provokes resistance, memory of the past becomes a battleground for the legitimization or delegitimization of the system. Officially endorsed images of the past that strengthen the authorities’ claims to legitimacy are rejected and alternative images that undermine those claims are created. A major gap develops between official memory and social memory”.7 But is it really true that the USSR and other countries of the Eastern bloc were characterised by a total separation of “social memory” from “official memory”? Amir Weiner, the author of a monograph on the changing memory of the Second World War in the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, shows that in the Soviet Union, even under Stalin, there were various “memory groups” within the Communist Party—former Soviet partisans and Red Army veterans, for instance—all of which attempted to impose their own interpretation of the events of 1941-1945.

In the case of Communist Poland, it would seem that from the outset there were aspects of the events of 1939-1945 that were publicly taboo, such as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Katyń, and the fate of Polish citizens deported to the East. The communities affected by these events—Siberian deportees, families of the Katyń victims, displaced persons from the Eastern Borderlands (Kresy) of the Second Polish Republic—had no possibility to organise themselves or to articulate their views and interests through the official channels. For this reason, to speak of an image of the past being negotiated by various agents of memory does not seem justified here. Nevertheless, it is also true to say that there were significant areas where such negotiation was permitted, at least during certain periods. One such area was the memory of Nazi concentration camps and death camps.

← 13 | 14 → When deciding upon a timeframe for my study, I took up the idea put forward by the Polish historian Robert Traba that in 1944/45-1949 social memory of the Second World War had not yet been fully established or codified in Poland and found expression in numerous, often spontaneous and competing remembrance initiatives. Traba calls those years “a period of active memory”. He attributes this phenomenon first to the “direct proximity of the traumatic experiences of the war years, which caused a huge degree of emotional involvement on the part of society”, and second to the fact that “public debate on wartime remembrance had not yet been fully monopolised by the state”.8 It was not until the end of the 1940s, Traba argues, as Stalinism tightened its grip on social and cultural life, that historical policy in Poland came to be completely subordinated to the needs of Communist propaganda. The second half of the 1940s would appear, therefore, to be a particularly interesting period for analysis; it allows the historian on the one hand to reveal the polyphony of wartime memory under conditions of relative pluralism in Poland and on the other to reconstruct the process by which debate was gradually silenced as the totalitarian regime consolidated its power.

The year 1950 may be seen as the culminating point in the “Stalinsation” of historical memory in Poland. For it was then that two events occurred of symbolic importance to the development of Polish ideas about the Nazi death camps and concentration camps: in February 1950, Tadeusz Borowski wrote an article for Odrodzenie [Rebirth] in which he distanced himself from his Auschwitz stories, thus marking his entry into Socialist Realism9; and in November, on the orders of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party, a new exhibition opened in the State Museum at Auschwitz which turned the camp into an instrument of Cold War propaganda.

This book consists of two parts. In part one, I discuss the groups and institutions which in the second half of the 1940s were most heavily involved in shaping the memory of Nazi concentration camps. I try to reconstruct the negotiations that took place within and between those groups and institutions on how the camp experience should be interpreted. In part two, I discuss how the notions embraced by those various agents of memory, and the conflicts and negotiations between them, were manifested in material forms of remembrance. I analyse the fate of former concentration camps and death camps, which, as genuine historical sites, cemeteries and remnants, with which many people’s personal memories were associated, naturally aspired to the title of “sites of memory” (lieux de mémoire, Erinnerungsorte). I refer here to the definition of sites of memory proposed by ← 14 | 15 → Maurice Halbwachs in his classic study of social memory, La Topographie légendaire des Évangiles en Terre Sainte (1941), rather than to the definition developed by the French scholar Pierre Nora in the 1980s. For Nora, sites of memory are not just topographical places but all the historical figures and events, all the concepts and symbols, that make up the identity of a given nation. In the case of France, he includes among sites of memory Joan of Arc, Vichy, the Marseillaise, 14 July, and the juxtaposition “Gaullists and Communists”.10 I understand the term “sites of memory” more literally—as topographical places which, on account of their history, are of major importance in developing a sense of identity among a given group of people. In my analysis, sites of memory are therefore treated as one of the fields where competing representations of the past and the competing interests of various social actors are manifested. ← 15 | 16 →


1     Marek Kucia, Auschwitz jako fakt społeczny, Kraków 2005, p. 292.

2     Marek Kucia, Auschwitz w świadomości społecznej Polaków A.D. 2010, survey conducted by TNS OBOP, 7-10 Jan. 2010.

3     Popular Memory Group, “Popular memory: theory, politics, method” in Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (eds) The Oral History Reader, London–NY 1998, p. 76.

4     Pieter Lagrou, The Legacy of Nazi Occupation. Patriotic Memory and National Recovery in Western Europe, 1945-1965, Cambridge 2000; Jay Winter and Emmanuel Sivan, “Setting the Framework” in idem (eds) War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge 2000; Jay Winter, “Forms of Kinship and Remembrance in the Aftermath of the Great War” in ibid.; Amir Weiner, Making Sense of War. The Second World War and the Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution, Princeton 2000; Harold Marcuse, Legacies of Dachau. The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp, 1933-2001, Cambridge 2001.

5     Marcuse, Legacies of Dachau, p. 14.

6     Winter, “Forms of Kinship and Remembrance”, p. 60.

7     Barbara Szacka, “Pamięć zbiorowa i wojna”, Przegląd Socjologiczny 2, 49 (2000), p. 16.

8     Robert Traba, “Symbole pamięci: II wojna światowa w świadomości zbiorowej Polaków. Szkic do tematu” in idem Kraina tysiąca granic. Szkice o historii i pamięci, Olsztyn 2003, p. 181.

9     Tadeusz Borowski, “Rozmowy”, Odrodzenie, 19 Feb. 1950.

10   Les lieux de mémoire, edited by Pierre Nora, Vol. 1-3, Paris 1984-1992.

← 18 | 19 → Chapter 1

Former Prisoners: “Finest Sons of the Fatherland” or “Hapless Victims of the Camps”?1

We have come to see all former prisoners as victims of political persecution, as martyrs of ideas. We have come to see the concentration camp as a torture chamber for honourable people—fighters of irreproachable character and indomitable will. What a tragic misunderstanding! It was members of the resistance who stuck the label of idealism onto the concentration camp. To admit it is painful, but this myth must be exposed once and for all. We, prisoners, do not ask for pathos. All we want is an assessment of the naked truth. The camps were horrific precisely because they were so vile; because idealistic and truly honourable people were forced to live side by side with lesser beings—with the dull and mindless masses […].2

These words were written by Maria Jezierska, a former inmate of Auschwitz-Birkenau, in an article for the Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny in September 1946. Jezierska’s description is very different from the image of the political prisoner found in many other publications of the time and from later years. For instance, in her memoir published shortly after the war, the Catholic writer Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, also a former Birkenau inmate, wrote:

When the Germans entered Poland in 1939, they underestimated the role of Polish women. [...] The first year of occupation opened their eyes. They were shocked to discover that Polish women participated on equal terms to Polish men in the struggle for independence; that they rivalled men in their courage, initiative, perseverance, and readiness to fight, and surpassed them in their resilience to torture. [...] With increasing anger, the Germans realised that these characteristics were true of Polish women in general and not restricted to a particular class or group. […] These facts aroused hatred towards Polish women. To the Germans, women of the resistance—women who dared to oppose the conquerors of the world—appeared as degenerate, malicious and repugnant beings, deserving of ruthless extermination. It was from this disgust that Birkenau was born.3

← 19 | 20 → Two years later, Zbigniew Suchocki, chairman of the Wrocław Branch of the Polish Association of Former Political Prisoners (PZbWP), in an article published in the association’s by then Communist-dominated magazine, Wolni Ludzie [Free People], wrote:

The association lends organisational form to a war previously waged in the darkness of the underground from the moment the spectre of fascism had begun to threaten Poland. This war was fought by progressive forces united around the idea of the struggle for peace and freedom, for national and social liberation, and for social justice and international solidarity. The front was everywhere the enemy was to be found. In this war, some died on the battlefields, others on city streets, still others behind the barbed wire of concentration camps. It was often a matter of pure chance on which front a person fought. The vast majority of political prisoners, before they became prisoners, had participated in the struggle against fascism.4

Although Kossak-Szczucka and Suchocki embraced radically different world-views, they both saw Polish concentration camp prisoners as fighters for freedom and independence; in the face of the facts, they assumed that people had mainly been incarcerated for being members of the resistance movement. However, the authors disagreed on one important point: unlike Kossak-Szczucka, Suchocki suggested that the majority of prisoners were Communists, or at least Communist sympathisers. He regarded members of the PZbWP not only as heroes of the fight against fascism, but also as people who had played an active role in the creation of the new political system.

Although in the immediate post-war years one finds numerous examples of glorification of concentration camp prisoners, during this period their image in Poland was not yet fully consolidated. The prisoners themselves—sick, weak, and traumatised—more often than not saw themselves as victims in need of assistance. Public opinion and the state administration likewise perceived them less as returning war heroes and more as yet another problem that needed to be solved. It was not until 1948/1949 that the reality of the camps began to be seen in terms of martyrdom and heroism, and it was this interpretation that eventually took hold. Prisoners came to be portrayed almost exclusively as heroes and martyrs who had suffered and died in the name of a higher cause.5 Thus, there emerged a symbiosis ← 20 | 21 → between the “national” and “Communist” narratives, although in accordance with the dominant ideology of the day, Polish prisoners were largely presented as Communists and as supporters and creators of the new system—its vanguard.

Repatriation and Assistance

In 1945, Poland was a country ruined by war and occupation, its population decimated. According to the most recent estimates, between 1939 and 1945 nearly six million citizens of pre-war Poland lost their lives during the German and Soviet occupation. Approximately half of the victims were Jews and Poles of Jewish origin.6 Other national minorities, including Ukrainians, Belarusians and Roma, made up about one million of the victims. A large number of the murdered and fallen were members of the country’s political and intellectual elites—doctors, lawyers, lecturers and clergy. Several hundred thousand people were left disabled. The material losses were also immense. As a result of hostilities and repression during the occupation, in Poland’s pre-war territories alone, nearly 150,000 urban properties and over 340,000 farms were destroyed. Many industrial facilities were also devastated.

The Potsdam Agreement, concluded on 2 August 1945, ratified the shift of Poland’s borders westwards; as a result, the country lost almost half of its prewar territory and in return gained an area that was one quarter of the size of the Second Polish Republic. Border shifts, migration caused by war and occupation, ← 21 | 22 → the exodus of a considerable number of the Jews who had survived the Holocaust, and the official policy of creating a nationally homogenous state, all resulted in mass population transfers. Between 1945 and 1950, 3.5 million Germans were expelled west of the Oder–Neisse line.7 Pursuant to the agreements concluded in September 1944 between the Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN) and the Soviet Socialist Republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania, by the end of 1946, 520,000 Belarusian, Lithuanian and, above all, Ukrainian nationals had been deported from Poland. The following year, over 140,000 Ukrainians who had remained in Poland were deported to the northern and western regions of the country under Operation Vistula8, while more than 140,000 Jews emigrated from Poland soon after the war.9 At the same time, over 1.5 million inhabitants of the country’s former Eastern Borderlands (Kresy) as well as displaced persons from distant regions of the Soviet Union migrated to Poland.10 In mid-1945, a stream of repatriates from Western Europe began to arrive. In total, by the end of the 1940s, approximately two million people had returned to Poland from Western and Northern Europe and from outside the continent, of whom three-quarters were forced labourers, former concentration camp inmates, and prisoners of war returning from Germany and Austria.11 There was also significant internal migration. Between the end of the war and 1948, 2.5 million settlers migrated from Central Poland to the northern and western regions of the country.12 This migration reached its peak between 1945 and 1947.

Reconstruction of the country after the ravages of war presented a huge challenge for the Polish authorities and Polish society alike. Mass population transfers were extremely costly and logistically complex. Concentration camp survivors were just one of many groups in need of assistance. It is impossible to state the exact number of Poles liberated from the concentration camps; however, it appears that there were relatively few compared to other groups of victims returning after the war from the territories of the Third Reich. Krystyna Kersten, ← 22 | 23 → who cites the data of the Polish Government-in-Exile as well as the calculations made by the Allies in mid-1944, and who also takes into account the mass evacuations and high mortality rate in the final months of the war, estimates that the number of Polish prisoners liberated from concentration camps located outside Poland’s pre-war borders was between 50,000 and 80,000.13 Given that only some of those people decided to return to Poland, former prisoners accounted for no more than four per cent of all repatriates from the West. Even if we add the 20,000-45,000 Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust and opted to return to Poland, this proportion does not increase substantially. We should also take into account the small number of Polish citizens liberated from concentration camps located within the territory of pre-war Poland.14 For comparison, the number of Polish forced labourers who found themselves within Nazi Germany at the end of the war was almost two million; of these, more than 400,000 were in territories that became part of Poland in 1945. Of the remaining 1.6 million labourers, over 74 per cent returned to Poland in subsequent years.15

Those who survived the concentration camps were not always greeted as martyrs and heroes in Poland. Indeed, former inmates of concentration camps or other camps were often not distinguished from forced labourers. All were treated equally as victims of war who needed help, but they were also considered a ← 23 | 24 → potential source of social problems. As Tadeusz Sas-Jaworski wrote in Tygodnik Powszechny within one month of the German surrender:

Amongst the many problems which Poland must address in the near future is the return of our compatriots who worked as forced labourers in Germany during the war, and the question of ‘workers from the East’ passing through our country [...] from the West.16

The author estimated that at least 1.7 million Poles had worked in Nazi Germany:

They are all civilians: men, women and young people—emaciated, and morally and physically shattered. Very few are capable of working straight away; the vast majority require emotional and physical healing […]. If we consider the sheer number of these unfortunate victims of war, their moral and physical state, and the conditions under which they will be travelling—to Poland or through Poland—to their families and homes, we must accept that this process will require swift and thorough preparation, and even then may give rise to many new and serious problems.

The author also stressed that people returning from the West were not the only group in need of care:

[...] a huge wave of repatriates will soon be on the move [...] in the opposite direction, from East to West, from Transcaucasian Russia to Poland. [...] Although dealing with repatriation and transit is not beyond Poland’s capabilities, it will, nonetheless, require a huge amount of work and resources and, above all, excellent, effective, and far-sighted organisation.

Contrary to modern preconceptions, concentration camp survivors were not always seen as the group most urgently requiring assistance. Reports sent in from local authorities to the Polish Ministry of Labour and Social Care (MPiOS) often made reference to other, more disadvantaged categories of victim. In May 1945, the Provincial Office in Kraków announced that prisoners of war were returning to the city from Hungary. These prisoners, it was emphasised, were in a far more desperate situation than the former inmates of concentration camps.17 Three months later, there were further reports from Kraków of Volksdeutsche and Poles returning from distant regions of the Soviet Union to which they had been transported by the Red Army in the winter of 1945: “Diseased and emaciated, dressed in rags and frequently suffering trauma”, they were often said to be in a worse condition than those “returning from the concentration camps”.18 The situation of people from the former Eastern Borderlands was also at times harder than that of repatriates from the West. Having ← 24 | 25 → left their homes in territories that were no longer part of Poland, they would sometimes wander for months in search of a roof over their head. By contrast, most of the Polish prisoners of Nazi concentration camps, with the exception of Jews, still had homes and families they could return to.

On 23 July 1944, the Soviet Army entered Majdanek. At the moment the camp was liberated there were no more than 1,500 people within its confines, mainly Soviet prisoners of war and local peasants.19 The other prisoners had been transported in the spring and summer of 1944 to concentration camps located further to the west. Six months later, on 27 January 1945, the Soviet Army reached Auschwitz. By that stage there were barely 8,800 people within Auschwitz-Birkenau and its sub-camps—mainly Jews from various European countries20; all the other prisoners had been transported to the interior of Germany by the SS. Some inmates died soon after liberation. Those who managed to survive were for the most part too ill and exhausted to begin their journey home straight away. It was not until mid-February that the Soviet military authorities began to organise the first transports of former prisoners.21 As a result, many remained in Auschwitz until the spring.22 Hospitals run by the Red Army and by the Polish Red Cross (PCK) were established on the site of the former camp. In the first half of May 1945, approximately 1,500 patients still remained within these hospitals.23 Other people returned home by their own means; many used Kraków as a stopping-off point.

In mid-February 1945, as the first former prisoners began to arrive from Auschwitz, a Special Commissioner affiliated to the Provincial Office in Kraków was appointed. The commissioner was charged with providing care to the former inmates ← 25 | 26 → of Nazi concentration camps and labour camps.24 Former inmates were to receive food and accommodation as well as a one-off cash payment of up to 500 zlotys.25

Meanwhile, as the Red Army advanced westwards, forced labourers and prisoners from other liberated camps in Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany began to arrive in Poland. Thus, for instance, by mid-April 1945, approximately 4,000 returnees from the West were being cared for in Kraków.26 After the end of the war, in May 1945, a new wave of repatriates reached the city.27 Every day, approximately 600 people arrived in need of assistance. There was a shortage of clothing and accommodation.

The central government authorities were ill-prepared to carry out a repatriation campaign or to provide care and assistance to former inmates of camps and prisons or to people returning to Poland from the territories of the Reich. The official records paint a picture of organisational chaos and indolence on the part of the state administration. Indeed, as Krystyna Kersten points out, repatriation from the West was not a priority for the Polish authorities; far greater importance was attached to the deportation of the German population, the resettlement of the northern and western regions, and the transfer of Polish nationals from the USSR.28

As early as in 1943, the Polish Government-in-Exile had begun negotiations with the Allies and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) on the post-war repatriation of Polish citizens.29 The Polish Ministry of Labour and Social Care (MPiOS) in London drew up a repatriation plan in 1943-1944, but it was never put into effect. On 22 July 1944, the Manifesto of the Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN) was proclaimed. The committee ← 26 | 27 → assumed control over Polish territory occupied by the Red Army. Following the establishment of the Provisional Government of National Unity (TRJN) at the end of June 1945, the United States and Great Britain ceased to recognise the Polish Government-in-Exile. However, the PKWN was completely unprepared to carry out a repatriation campaign, either as regards action to be taken in Poland or as regards coordinating the campaign with foreign institutions. The first contacts with UNRRA had been made in September 1944, but the unwillingness of the Allies to recognise the PWKN, and later the Provisional Government of the Republic of Poland, meant that organisational work was delayed. The period of dual power between July 1944 and June 1945 undermined preparations for the repatriation of Poles from Western and Southern Europe.

In the spring of 1945, the Provisional Government established the Office of the General Plenipotentiary for Repatriation; in August, it was divided into two offices: the first responsible for the repatriation of Polish citizens from the West, the second for the resettlement of people returning from the Soviet Union. These offices were tasked with preparing and conducting the repatriation process until the moment the returnees were handed over to the relevant authorities on the country’s borders. To this end, the office responsible for repatriation from the West established special repatriation missions in Germany, Austria, and other countries in Western and Southern Europe. The work of these missions was complicated by the fact that representatives of the new national authorities came into conflict with liaison officers loyal to the Government-in-Exile who were already stationed in those countries.

Most of the repatriation from the Soviet occupation zone of Germany was completed relatively fast—by the autumn of 1945. It was spontaneous in character, proceeding largely without the intervention of the Polish authorities or the Soviet Military Administration. The situation was somewhat different in the western occupation zones of Germany and Austria, where repatriation did not begin in earnest until the autumn of 1945. In August and September of that year, an agreement was reached between the Western Allies and the TRJN regarding the repatriation process. By that time, the repatriation of other nationalities deported to the Third Reich during the war, including French, Belgians and Dutch, was nearing completion.30 Meanwhile, over 700,000 Polish citizens remained in camps for displaced persons; most others had returned to Poland by their own means. According to Krystyna Kersten, this delay was due to the fact that under the terms negotiated at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the repatriation of Soviet citizens had absolute priority over the repatriation of other groups of displaced persons from Central and Eastern Europe. But it was also the case that the Polish authorities ← 27 | 28 → were ill-prepared to receive such a huge number of returnees. When the first organised transports of repatriates from the western occupation zones of Germany and Austria commenced in the autumn of 1945, the Polish authorities tried at all costs to limit the number of daily arrivals. This is not because the authorities were opposed to the return of Poles from the West. On the contrary, repatriation was important to the authorities not only for propaganda but also for practical reasons: the country was in desperate need of a labour force, particularly skilled workers. In camps for displaced persons a bitter propaganda war was waged between emissaries of the Government-in-Exile, trying to persuade Poles to remain abroad, and representatives of the national authorities, who urged them to return.31 Despite this, the repatriation points set up on Poland’s borders were unable to cope with the huge volume of returnees.

Many people decided to return to Poland under their own steam, despite the difficulty and risks involved. These spontaneous migrations made it more difficult for the Polish state administration to care for and monitor returnees. In his report for May–July 1945, Tadeusz Leszczyński, the Plenipotentiary for Returnees Arriving from Germany, affiliated to the Polish Ministry of Labour and Social Care, lamented the fact that re-emigration from the West was proceeding in a haphazard fashion.32 The registration points set up on the border were not serving their purpose, since most returnees from the West were crossing the border in other places. Leszczyński’s description is confirmed by reports from the provinces. In a letter sent to the Ministry of Labour and Social Care in June 1945 from the town of Sanok in south-eastern Poland, the author complained that transfer points for people returning from forced labour and from the concentration camps had been set up exclusively on the country’s western borders, whereas increasing numbers were arriving via the Vienna–Budapest–Zagórz–Sanok route. “The returnees are emaciated and completely worn out by work and by their circuitous journey home under very difficult conditions. According to information we have received from the village administrator in Zagórz, each day the local authorities in that town are burying the corpses of those who have died en route from exhaustion.”33

Many of the returnees were detained at the border because they had no identity papers; others had had their documents stolen. The Ministry received numerous letters in which the authors claimed that they had been robbed—in most cases by the Soviet Army—whilst returning home from German captivity. “I have just ← 28 | 29 → returned from the British occupation zone of Germany. The situation there was completely fine”, wrote one embittered repatriate. “At our request we were taken as far as the Elbe and handed over to the Soviets. The first thing that happened is that we were completely robbed of our better clothing and possessions, including our watches and rings. Is it so difficult to set up a few crossing points under Polish control so that our citizens can be handed over directly by the Allies and protected from plunder by marauding [Soviet] soldiers?”34The absence of organised transports stirred up resentment amongst former prisoners and forced labourers, strengthening their belief that no one was interested in their plight. The Polish authorities received numerous memos and complaints in this regard. “Why are they not bringing us home?”, wrote one displaced person in a letter to the Polish authorities:

That is what everyone wants and what everyone is waiting for… Why have they forgotten about us? We have nothing to do with politics because we have spent the last five and a half years in concentration camps. All we want is to return to Poland. If I were stronger, I would have returned long ago, despite the fact that it is impossible to get permission to leave on one’s own accord… Everyone wants to return. The Polish authorities keep calling on us to return, but they do not say how. It is as if they have no idea about the conditions under which we are living… We sit here—tens of thousands of former concentration camp prisoners—waiting to be transported home, whilst living in abject conditions.35

In another letter sent from Dachau, a former prisoner wrote: “For nearly six years we longed for the war to end. And now we have been waiting two months to return, but we cannot do so because we are in foreign lands.”36

At the same time, the Polish press often expressed concern that longer stays in camps for displaced persons led to moral decay. In an interview given in August 1946 to the Dziennik Polski daily, Władysław Wolski, the General Plenipotentiary for Repatriation, stated:

At the present time, approximately half a million Poles are still in Germany. The majority are in camps where they receive accommodation and food. As most are without responsibilities or steady work, they make extra money in myriad ways: through petty trading, smuggling, or casual jobs. The lack of work, and the sense that even without it they will have enough to survive, is the reason why moral decay is spreading amongst the emigrants. Theft and robbery are commonplace. Needless to say, this state of affairs is of great concern to the Polish government.37

← 29 | 30 → The central government authorities were equally slow to provide care within Poland to former prisoners and inmates and those returning from the Reich. It was not until the beginning of February 1945—i.e. six months after the liberation of Majdanek and more than two weeks after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau—that an Interministerial Committee for the Provision of Care to Persons Liberated from Nazi Camps was formed. Yet this body did very little. Meanwhile, some of the responsibility for providing care to returnees from the West was taken on by the National Office for Repatriation (PUR), which the PKWN established in the spring of 1944. However, the PUR’s main task was to organise and carry out the transfer of Poles from the Soviet Union and the deportation of Germans from Poland.

At the end of May 1945, the Council of Ministers decided that the provision of care to former camp inmates would be the responsibility of two institutions: the Polish Ministry of Labour and Social Care and the newly-established Committee for the Provision of Assistance to Returnees Arriving from Germany, headed by Tadeusz Leszczyński, which was affiliated to the Ministry.38 The plan was also to set up local committees affiliated to provincial offices. Furthermore, a network of reception points and transfer points was to be established around the country, its purpose being to help returnees from the West reach their homes or find new places to settle. However, no distinction was made between concentration camp and labour camp prisoners on the one hand, and prisoners of war and forced labourers on the other. The committee’s role was to oversee repatriation from the West, relieving the PUR of its duties in this regard, since the latter had failed to live up to expectations. Perhaps, as Krystyna Kersten suggests, the creation of a separate committee to aid returnees from the West was also due to the fact that the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR) mistrusted the PUR, which it felt was dominated by people hostile to the new Polish authorities.39 In practice, however, the division of responsibility between the two institutions was poorly defined. Leszczyński lacked a separate apparatus, so his work largely consisted in coordinating the activities of the PUR, local authorities, and other public institutions such as the Polish Red Cross (PCK), Caritas, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), and the Central Committee of Jews in Poland (CKŻP), and distributing funds, food, and ← 30 | 31 → other goods amongst them. Conflicts over responsibility also occurred. Both the committee and the post of Plenipotentiary for Returnees Arriving from Germany were abolished in the autumn of 194540; their responsibilities were taken over by the National Office for Repatriation.

The campaign to assist those returning from German captivity was therefore prepared with considerable delay and, at least during the first months, was fairly chaotic, which undermined its effectiveness. As mentioned earlier, in some places where people were crossing the border en masse, particularly in southern Poland, there were no reception points at all.41 The level of supplies at existing facilities varied greatly. In mid-June 1945, Tadeusz Leszczyński carried out an inspection of transfer points in western and southern Poland. He discovered that whereas in the Poznań Province help for returnees from the West was being organised relatively well—meals, coffee and dry provisions were handed out at railway stations and accommodation was available—in the Dolnośląskie Province (Lower Silesia) almost nothing had been done to prepare for the arrival of re-emigrants.42 In other reports, complaints were made about the lack of coordination between various public institutions. The issue of organising the onward journeys of returnees to their homes gave rise to yet more problems.

The central and local authorities, aware that they were unable to shoulder the burden of providing care to those returning from German captivity, attempted from the outset to involve local communities in the campaign. As early as in February 1945, the Council of Ministers spoke of the need to organise assistance “with the cooperation of society at large”, given the huge numbers of repatriates arriving in Poland.43 The government launched a public appeal for support for former concentration camp prisoners: “The cruel fate that has befallen millions of our fellow citizens should move our conscience and awaken our hearts. Let us all stand behind the Ministry of Labour and Social Care in its campaign to help the returnees. Indifference is unacceptable.”44

It seems, however, that despite the government’s propaganda, Polish society was too absorbed with its own problems, particularly during the first months after ← 31 | 32 → the war, to take an interest in the fate of the unfortunates returning from German captivity. Krystyna T., a former inmate of Ravensbrück, described her first meeting with her compatriots after crossing the Polish border in the first half of May 1945:

We squeezed into the corridor of the railway carriage. Sitting in the compartments were fat peasant women, small-time traders. Their bundles were placed on the luggage racks above their heads. They were looters who travelled to the West to take everything they could from German homes […], so they were carrying everything they had looted. They had occupied all the compartments; there was no chance [of a seat]. Obviously they had bribed the conductors, because the trains were meant for us—the former prisoners. But there were no seats at all on those trains, so we stood in the corridor. Those peasant women didn’t just eat: they stuffed their faces with hard-boiled eggs, sausage and bread. They saw the emaciated […] prisoners in their striped uniforms, their eyes burning with hunger, imploring the women to give them a piece of bread, a piece of sausage, anything. But throughout the entire length of the train, not one of them did.45

Official documents mention in a similar fashion, albeit using different language, the issue of the Polish population’s attitude towards returnees from the Reich. At a conference on the provision of care to people arriving from the West, which took place in June 1945 in Katowice, the “complete indifference” of Polish society towards the repatriates was noted.46 The situation in Kraków was no different. In the absence of sufficient accommodation, at a meeting in May 1945 the Special Commission for Care of Former Prisoners considered whether to appeal to the population of Kraków to provide shelter to the returnees, potentially for a fee. But the idea was dismissed as completely unrealistic.47 In time, the situation improved slightly. During a meeting at the Provincial Office in Kraków in mid-June, one participant spoke about the dedication of the city’s inhabitants, about the free meals offered by restaurants and by private individuals, about the rooms that had been made available, and about the collections of money and clothes.48 However, it was still felt necessary to use propaganda in order to “summon up support” amongst the city’s inhabitants for the campaign to assist repatriates from the West. At the end of July 1945, Tadeusz Leszczyński could state, with a degree of satisfaction, that by organising a conference with public institutions and the state administration it had been possible “to create a conducive atmosphere and raise ← 32 | 33 → public interest in the problem as a whole” and in so doing “society’s complete, even harmful indifference towards the returnees” had been overcome.49

Yet, from the point of view of prisoners returning from the concentration camps, the help extended by public institutions and society at large remained inadequate. This is how Krystyna T., for instance, described her situation on returning to Poland:

I went to the Red Cross [...] and all they gave me was 100 zlotys [...]. At that time, 100 zlotys... I don’t know if it was even [enough to buy] a loaf of bread; it was nothing back then—a slice of wholemeal bread and a cup of bitter coffee substitute. That was all I got from the Red Cross. [...] For six weeks I went to school in my striped [concentration camp] uniform because I didn’t own a skirt.50

In September 1946, in an article for Tygodnik Powszechny, Maria Jezierska appealed for help to be given to camp survivors. “As for the general public, who—I want to believe—only for reasons of oversight, exhaustion, and the travails of post-war life did not give the thousands returning [from the camps] the welcome they deserved, and did not provide them with work or assistance—let them do so now.”51

Help for former concentration camp prisoners, to the extent that it reached them at all, was only temporary in nature. Eventually, former prisoners managed to secure welfare payments, though not all were eligible. In the meantime, some of those returning from German captivity required constant medical attention and financial assistance; many, at least initially, were unable to undertake paid work. Thus, for instance, in an alarming letter sent at the end of 1945 to the Ministry of Labour and Social Care, the Provincial Office in the city of Szczecin stated that, up to the end of November, more than 12,000 people had returned to the province from German concentration camps. These people were unable to work due to extreme exhaustion and often total loss of health; over half of them required comprehensive care.52 Maria Jezierska reported on the catastrophic physical, mental, and moral condition of people returning from the concentration camps. More than 90 per cent of them were “derelicts”. She noted, in particular, their lack of respect for work:

These people are not able to undertake any kind of work, still less to remain in work. Their will is broken, and the long months of sabotage have completely changed their ← 33 | 34 → attitude towards work: they don’t respect it and they try, as in the camps, to palm it off on to someone else; or, instead of trying to find a steady job, they simply make ends meet in a not entirely honest fashion, living as freebooters.53

Jezierska also mentioned the frequent cases of theft amongst former prisoners as well as drunkenness and a lack of responsibility.

For many, adjusting to life outside the camp was very difficult. This problem was raised by a former prisoner at a meeting organised in Sopot in the summer of 1945. Addressing his former camp comrades, he said:

We are to some extent—forgive my candour, friends!—abnormal, removed from reality. During those years spent in disgusting and at times terrible conditions, cut off from culture and civilisation, we had no choice but to adjust our needs and habits to life behind a 5000-volt electric fence. As the years passed we grew numb, witnessing each day the death of yet another close friend [...]. As the years passed we got used to living without clean bedclothes, indeed without bedclothes at all. We got used to living without knives and forks, tablecloths and plates. Instead, we grew accustomed to wheezing and to being beaten with a barbed-wire whip. We grew accustomed to the starvation bunker, to the strafkompanie [penal work division]. Every day we looked down the barrel of a machine gun. We got used to the crematorium and the constant stench of burning human flesh. Despite those terribly difficult conditions, we now find it hard to adjust to normal, post-war life….54

Unfortunately, in the immediate post-war years no methodical research was done in Poland on the situation of former concentration camp prisoners. Some idea as to their state of health can be inferred from the slightly later reports produced by the Polish Association of Former Political Prisoners (PZbWP). These reports should be treated with caution, however, since the association did not register patients systematically. According to data from the association’s Social Welfare Council (ROS) from the first half of 1948, of the 134,000 former prisoners who were members of the association, a third suffered from various diseases.55 The most common disease was tuberculosis.56 More reliable information on the physical and mental condition of former concentration camp prisoners is contained in research conducted by a team of doctors and psychiatrists established in 1959 by ← 34 | 35 → the psychiatrist Antoni Kępiński.57 Tests carried out in 1964-1965 by Czesław Kempisty on 360 former prisoners from Wrocław showed that 58 per cent of them suffered from cardiovascular diseases (the national average being 4 per cent), 35 per cent from anxiety and personality disorders (national average: 4 per cent), 29 per cent from gastrointestinal diseases (national average: 11 per cent), 29 per cent from bone disease and diseases of the motor organs (national average: 10 per cent), and 19 per cent from respiratory diseases (national average: 4 per cent).58

Former Prisoners Organise Themselves

In light of the situation described above, it is hardly surprising that the prisoners’ associations established in 1944-1945 saw the organisation of self-help to be their main purpose. The first such organisation, established as early as in 1944, was the Temporary Association of Political Prisoners of the Majdanek Concentration Camp.59 In February 1945, barely a week after the liberation of Auschwitz, the Association of Former Ideological and Political Prisoners from the 1939-1945 War was established in Kraków; the activities of this association extended beyond the Małopolska region.60 Also in 1945, further independent prisoners’ associations appeared in other parts of the country.61 Some of these merged into larger structures, ← 35 | 36 → while others competed within the same territory both for new members and for access to benefits and privileges.

The associations which emerged during this period had varying profiles. Thus, for instance, the statute of the Association of Former Ideological and Political Prisoners from the 1939-1945 War stressed the association’s apolitical character, proclaiming that any former political prisoner, regardless of his or her beliefs, could become a member. The association was mainly to be involved in welfare activities; its declared purpose was to “give the widest possible moral and material assistance to former ideological and political prisoners” incarcerated by the Nazi authorities during the war, to “represent, support and defend the interests of prisoners and their families”, and to “organise continuous and effective care for the widows and orphans of former prisoners”.62 These aims were to be achieved through the organisation of a self-help campaign and efforts to secure various privileges for former prisoners from the Polish authorities. The statute mentioned nothing about the association’s political aims or about remembrance. The Association of Former Political Prisoners of Concentration Camps, established in Sopot in the summer of 1945, set itself similar tasks.63 In a speech given at the association’s inaugural meeting, one of its founder members stated:

[...] our purpose is not to create another club or association, of which there are already so many, […] but to act as an organised entity in defence of our fellow comrades, who deserve to be defended and who need our help, such that they will find support, whether moral or material, in the face of adversity. [...] Of course, what we are setting up is neither a labour exchange nor an estate agency. We shall not be giving financial support to parasites and layabouts; rather, we shall be attempting, with honesty and willingness, to help those who—due to the present circumstances—cannot manage on their own.64

A somewhat different tone pervades the statute of the Association of Former Political Prisoners from the German Occupation of the Republic of Poland in the Years 1939-1945, established in Łódź. One of the association’s tasks was to organise all former prisoners into “a single, well-disciplined and creative organisation whose principal slogan is ‘The Good of the State and its Citizens’” and to “mould” its ← 36 | 37 → members into “selfless citizens of the state”.65 But even in the case of this association, one of the main goals was to provide help to former prisoners and their families. It seems that, irrespective of the political sympathies of their founders, prisoners’ associations were created mainly in order to organise help for their members and defend their interests vis-à-vis the state administration.

In the first days of February 1946, the founding congress of the Polish Association of Former Political Prisoners of Nazi Prisons and Concentration Camps (PZbWP) took place in Warsaw.66 The congress was attended by representatives of prisoner organisations from all over Poland. Józef Cyrankiewicz, the then secretary-general of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), was elected chairman of the association. At the same time, the Fédération Internationale des Anciens Prisonniers Politiques (FIAPP) was created—another Polish initiative. The federation was composed of a dozen or so prisoners’ organisations from across Europe, including France, Italy, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and the Soviet Union.67 The Frenchman Maurice Lampe became president of the FIAPP; Cyrankiewicz became its secretary-general.

According to the account of Józef S., an association activist and cashier for the PZbWP’s Executive Board, the idea of creating a national association came from a group of former prisoners from Warsaw.68 This is confirmed by the PZbWP’s own documents, which state that the association’s organisational committee was established in Warsaw at the end of 1945.69 Józef S. recounts that, initially, he and a few former camp comrades had gone to see Zenon Kliszko, then a member of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Polish Workers’ Party (KC PPR) and also chairman of that party’s caucus in the National Homeland Council (KRN). However, Kliszko rejected the idea of creating a national association of former prisoners. In the end it was Józef Cyrankiewicz and Adam Kuryłowicz, at that time chairman of the Central Committee for Social Welfare (CKOS)—both former Auschwitz inmates—who lent their support to the initiative. Józef S. suggests that the PPS leadership wanted in this way to create its own veterans’ ← 37 | 38 → association that would rival the PPR-dominated Union of Participants in the Armed Struggle for Independence and Democracy (ZUWZoNiD). The Polish Communists took a similar view. At a meeting of the Secretariat of the PPR’s Central Committee convened in the first half of January 1946, hence a few weeks prior to the PZbWP’s founding congress, it was suggested that the PPS was playing an important role in the preparations for the congress and that the PPR would be wrong to ignore the new organisation.70 Consequently, it was decided to mobilise party members within the ranks of the PZbWP. The fact is that Cyrankiewicz endorsed the idea of creating the PZbWP from the very outset. Krystyna T., managing editor of the PZbWP’s magazine, Wolni Ludzie, described Cyrankiewicz as the association’s “mainstay and protector”.71 Other prominent PPS activists included the chairman of the PZbWP’s Supreme Council (RN), the then Minister of Justice Henryk Świątkowski, and a few other members of the association’s leadership.

The founding of the association under the auspices of the PPS and, indirectly, the increasingly powerful PPR, inevitably met with resistance from many members of organisations that were set to join the PZbWP. Aside from likely political pressure, there were also practical arguments in favour of unification. It was assumed that a large, national organisation, enjoying the support of one of Poland’s governing political parties, would be better placed to secure funds and privileges for its members than would a multitude of smaller unions and associations. Thus, for instance, at a meeting of the Executive Board of the Kraków Branch of the Association of Former Ideological and Political Prisoners convened in mid-February 1946 to decide whether to join the PZbWP, it was argued that Kraków had hitherto received no subsidies from the state.72

The PZbWP membership was divided into active (i.e. actual) members and passive members (i.e. dependants). According to the statute, an active member of the association could be “any citizen of Poland who, on account of his political activity, social position or nationality, was imprisoned for freedom and democracy in fascist or Nazi prisons and concentration camps and who had not sullied the good name of political prisoners”.73 Orphans and widows of murdered political prisoners were accepted as passive members of the association. It is difficult to ← 38 | 39 → estimate, even in approximate terms, the size of the PZbWP’s membership. According to various sources, it was between 100,000 and 400,000 people.74 Even taking into account the fact that the association included not only concentration camp inmates but also people incarcerated in German prisons, the latter figure seems greatly exaggerated. This view was shared by representatives of the association’s Supreme Council, who in the spring of 1948 stated that the size of the membership hitherto assumed by the Executive Board was completely unrealistic.75 It was in the association’s interest to overstate the size of its membership since this was useful when bargaining over state subsidies. However, as a result of successive attempts at political vetting, numbers steadily dwindled. According to what would seem fairly reliable data based on membership figures sent in from the provinces, in the summer of 1949 the PZbWP had over 78,000 members, of whom 33,000 were actual members, nearly 23,000 were passive members, and another 23,000 were unverified.76

The PZbWP’s activities can be divided into three areas:

1)  remembrance and transfer of knowledge about Nazi crimes,

2)  political propaganda aimed at winning over association members and the wider public to the socialist system,

3)  help for former prisoners of Nazi concentration camps and their families.

The PZbWP was involved in projects that included the creation of the Auschwitz Museum. Already at the founding congress, the issue of recognising the camp as a “memorial to Polish and international martyrdom” was raised.77 Progress on the organisation of the museum was a constant concern for the PZbWP’s Executive Board. Local branches of the association also made efforts to commemorate the victims of other prisons and camps, including Gross-Rosen and Stutthof. Exhibitions were held and materials published. From the spring of 1947, the PZbWP’s official magazine, Wolni Ludzie, came out every two weeks; it contained not only ← 39 | 40 → information about the association’s activities, but also numerous recollections, reports on the trials of Nazi war criminals, book reviews, and polemics on issues relating to the camps. Aside from this, the PZbWP organised, at both the central and local levels, various anniversary and remembrance events; their purpose was principally to disseminate knowledge about Nazi crimes and raise funds for the association’s activities. As time passed, these events increasingly took the form of political demonstrations. Participants would manifest their support for the people’s government and condemn the policies of the Western allies. The Fédération Internationale des Anciens Prisonniers Politiques (FIAPP) was also used as a forum for political agitation. At the FIAPP congress in the summer of 1947 in Warsaw, an “Appeal to All Peace-Loving Nations” was proclaimed.78 The authors protested against the Marshall Plan and US support for the reconstruction and remilitarisation of Germany; they demanded the punishment of Nazi war criminals, the payment of reparations by Germany, and warned against Greek and Spanish fascism.

Despite the political aspirations of the association’s leadership, however, the PZbWP’s main aim during the first period of its existence was to organise help for its members and dependants; in this respect it was similar to the prisoner associations that had preceded it. In March 1947, the Social Welfare Council (ROS) was established; its purpose was to coordinate and streamline the self-help campaign.79 The system of care that ROS introduced was very extensive. Members and dependants could expect to receive allowances and loans well as clothing and food; local and provincial medical centres were created, and the cost of medications, prosthetic devices and sanatorium treatment was subsidised. The PZbWP also ran its own health spas and holiday resorts. As there were many young people and children amongst the association’s members and dependants, scholarships were awarded, and dormitories and orphanages created. The association organised summer camps and set up nurseries and youth clubs. The PZbWP also had workplaces where it would employ its own members. The institutions created by ROS not only provided immediate support but also played an important educational and socialising role. They helped former prisoners cope in the new post-war reality and maintain ties with their former comrades from the camps, who, on account of their shared experiences, constituted an important support group and point of reference.

It is hard to assess the actual scope and volume of support provided by ROS. For sure, it did not meet all the needs of the association’s members and dependants. However, the PZbWP’s data are impressive. The ROS report for the year 1947 shows that the association was running 97 youth clubs, two nurseries, 13 ← 40 | 41 → workplaces employing more than 600 people, and was paying out 439 regular allowances.80 Between February and October of 1947, the association sent nearly 4,600 of its members and dependants to tuberculosis sanatoria and hospitals; more than 6,700 children went on summer camps organised by ROS, and nearly 2,400 scholarships were awarded to pupils and students. ROS covered the treatment costs of association members who were uninsured and received no state support. If the reports are to be believed, in 1947 more than 10,000 people received various kinds of medical assistance.

Such wide-ranging welfare activities were very costly. Membership fees could not significantly bolster the PZbWP’s budget, and the association did not receive any regular state support either. The Ministry of Labour and Social Care provided only occasional subsidies. In December 1946, after several months of negotiation, the association secured a 25 per cent share in its revenues from licensed sales of alcohol. Such revenues had hitherto been enjoyed exclusively by the Union of War Disabled (ZIW) and the Union of Participants in the Armed Struggle for Independence and Democracy (ZUWZoNiD).81 The ZIW was in charge of distributing the funds, which led to incessant wrangling, especially as the ZIW leadership regarded the PZbWP as something of a lesser organisation. It felt that former prisoners who had not belonged to the resistance movement could not demand the same rights as true veterans. A ZIW representative made no bones about this in a conversation with a member of the PZbWP. He admitted to having greater sympathy for the ZUWZoNiD because “not everyone [in the PZbWP] is a former political prisoner—many were put away for black market trading”, while “the others [in the ZUWZoNiD] fought not only for Poland but for a new political system”.82

In order to fill the hole in its budget, the PZbWP increasingly pursued various commercial activities, which were overseen by a specially-appointed Economic Council (RG). An important source of financing for the association was its Retail Trade Organisation (CHD). Initially, the CHD was directly owned by the PZbWP, ← 41 | 42 → before being transformed into a cooperative in 1947/1948. Any adult member of the association could buy shares in the cooperative.83 Some of the revenues were re-invested in the association’s activities. The CHD ran numerous retail outlets and dining establishments as well as hotels and manufacturing plants across Poland. In mid-1948, the cooperative had 250 shops and department stores.84 According to the account of one PZbWP member, in the Rzeszów province the CHD ran an entire chain of textile stores:

First we obtained a licence to open textile shops. We opened a few shops in Rzeszów and in the surrounding area; in each district a new textile shop appeared. We were allocated some excellent products. Queues formed outside our shops because these were the first shops in Poland with products like that. There were four shops in Rzeszów alone. Our prisoners were employed there. The shops made a huge profit; some of it was sent to Warsaw, and the rest we kept for ourselves.85

The PZbWP also entered into an agreement with the Polish Tobacco Monopoly, which granted licences to association members for the sale of tobacco products.86

That the PZbWP prioritised welfare activities even over the commemoration of victims of Nazi crimes is shown by the fact that some former camp and prison buildings were converted into sanatoria and holiday homes for use by members and dependants of the association. The association found it difficult to obtain appropriate recreational facilities from the state. Yet, in the case of former Nazi prisons and camps—where no other use for these could be found—the association was in some sense their natural inheritor. Thus, the Palace villa, the former headquarters of the Gestapo in the town of Zakopane, was converted into a sanatorium for former prisoners.87 Similar plans were laid for Stutthof, where the association had initially planned to create a sanatorium or orphanage, and later a summer camp centre and shelter, for members and dependants of the association.88 In the ← 42 | 43 → end, however, these plans were abandoned. It was felt that Stutthof was not an appropriate location for a sanatorium on account of the “unpleasant memories the place could evoke”.89 In Auschwitz, too, there was a plan to convert some of the buildings of the original camp, the so-called Lagererweiterung (“camp extension”)90, into a complex of vocational schools for orphans of concentration camp prisoners. This “city of boys”, as it was once called, was to constitute “a living monument” to martyrdom.91 Such a utilitarian approach to martyrdom sites may in retrospect seem surprising, even inappropriate, but it was dictated by the harsh realities of the post-war period. In the second half of the 1940s, the idea of creating “living monuments” was quite popular in Poland and was not only applied to the remnants of former concentration camps and prisons.92

Politicisation of the PZbWP

At the end of December 1947, an article appeared in Wolni Ludzie by the then deputy chairman of the PZbWP, Bernard Fuksiewicz, who reported on a dispute that had arisen at the most recent congress of delegates from the association’s provincial branches. The dispute centred on the Executive Board’s support for the politicisation of the organisation. The author himself held the view that the PZbWP could no longer restrict itself to self-help campaigns and should assume a more explicitly ideological and political profile. “We must abandon all this ‘victimhood’”, he exhorted readers:

To grant special rights to all former prisoners just because they spent time in a prison or concentration camp would relegate us to the status of professional “martyrs”; it ← 43 | 44 → would create a new “brigade” that seeks privileges for itself, whereas we, former political prisoners, only want support to be given to those who really need and deserve it. We see ourselves neither as “worthies” nor as “whingers”, but rather as people who are shouldering a new and heavy burden, namely, the reconstruction of our country and the struggle for our ideals, in other words, the struggle against fascism, the struggle for peace, and the struggle for a better future for the nation, the state, and humanity.93

In Fuksiewicz’s view, the politicisation of the PZbWP was an inevitable consequence of the fact that the association brought together those who had “resisted the Nazi occupation of Poland” and “the Nazi world-view”, and who had “joined the struggle for national liberation, for freedom and human rights, and for a brighter future for humanity”. Although he conceded that the participants of these struggles had a variety of political beliefs, they were united by the idea of the struggle against fascism, in which “minor differences in the programmes of political parties” lost their significance.

Fuksiewicz’s article was the first in a series of texts published in Wolni Ludzie whose purpose was to persuade readers of the need for greater involvement in current political matters. Although the authors of these texts understood that in the immediate post-war years the main reason for joining the association had been the opportunity to meet people who shared similar experiences, with whom one could remember the injustices of the past, equally they felt that to wallow in suffering was “senseless and futile”.94 Former prisoners, they believed, should cease to be a burden on society, return to normal life, and join in the reconstruction of the country.95

From the moment the PZbWP was created, attempts were made to transform it into a political rather than a self-help organisation. Already at the congress of delegates of prisoners’ associations convened two weeks prior to the PZbWP’s founding congress, Józef Cyrankiewicz feared that the new association might become “yet another organisation that exists at society’s expense”.96 According to Cyrankiewicz, the PZbWP’s main task was to bear witness to Nazi crimes and prevent the renaissance of German imperialism. At the PZbWP’s founding congress, one of the association’s leaders declared that former prisoners did not wish to be perceived merely as “hapless victims of the camps”; they wished to become “the vanguard of the struggle against fascism and reactionary forces”.97 Despite this, as mentioned earlier, the association initially focused on welfare work, and its leadership, especially at the local level—despite the strong position ← 44 | 45 → of the PPS—comprised people of divergent world-views. The political offensive did not begin until mid-1947. From that moment onwards, the PZbWP gradually evolved from an association of victims into a veterans’ organisation with a strong ideological profile, whose main purpose was to lend support and legitimacy to the new system. Simultaneously, efforts were made to cleanse the ranks of the organisation of “profiteers and reactionary and non-ideological elements”.98 This transformation was accompanied by a change in the image of the political prisoner, who metamorphosed from a victim of Nazi barbarity into a hero of the anti-fascist resistance movement and the personification of the new system’s vanguard.


Polish Association of Former Political Prisoners: “[As] free [citizens] we are building the People’s Poland” (Wolni Ludzie, 15 April 1949)

At the end of May 1947, the first major purges took place amongst the PZbWP’s leadership. Much of the Executive Board was replaced following accusations of poor and disorganised management on the part of the association’s members, ← 45 | 46 → including the secretary-general, Czesław Łęski, and his deputy.99 At a meeting of the Supreme Council, participants openly expressed their suspicions that the attacks on the Executive Board had been politically motivated. It was pointed out that those who had been dismissed were either members of the Polish Peasants’ Party (PSL) or had no party affiliation. The Monitoring Committee was accused of bias. Despite the changes, however, the PPR remained in a minority within the association’s leadership. As shown by a list drawn up between May 1947 and December 1948, of the 15 members of the Executive Board, five belonged to the PPS, three to the PPR, and one to the Peasants’ Party.100 As one member of the PPR caucus within the PZbWP’s Executive Board stated in November 1948, “… on 1 January [of this year], on the premises of the Executive Board, members of our party were still being treated like the NKV[D]”.101 He continued: “Currently, the situation has radically improved. Although we still have only a few members of our party on the Executive Board, they hold the top positions.” He optimistically concluded: “We can safely say that, thanks to the supremacy of the PPR, we are responsible for the association’s overall policy, and this is our undoubted success.”

Once the first personnel changes in the association’s Executive Board had been made, efforts turned towards cleansing its local structures. As evidenced by a list found in the PZbWP’s documentation, in 1946 12 per cent of the association’s leaders at the local and provincial level were members of the PPR; in the following year this figure had risen to one-fifth, and by 1948 every third member of the association’s leadership belonged to the PPR.102 After the creation of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) in December 1948, almost all the chairmen and deputy chairmen of the executive boards of the PZbWP’s provincial branches were party members.103 The situation was similar in local branches. The infiltration of the association by the PPR is illustrated by the example of the Kraków Branch: data from March 1948 show that of the eleven members of the Kraków Branch’s Executive Board, only one was a member of the PPR and another was a member of the Democratic Party (SD), which was affiliated to the PPR.104 By ← 46 | 47 → mid-1949, six members of the PZPR and one member of the SD already sat on the Executive Board.105 In the spring of 1948, the chairman of the Kraków Branch’s Executive Board was still a person without party affiliation. Barely six months later, the post of chairman and two of the posts of deputy chairman were taken by members of the PZPR; a third deputy chairman belonged to the SD.

The resistance to the PPR’s policy amongst Kraków’s ex-prisoner community is illustrated by the conflict that arose during a meeting of the PZbWP’s Kraków Branch at the end of June 1947 between the PPR activist Jan Chlebowski and the chairman of the PZbWP’s local branch in Tarnów, Antoni Gładysz. Chlebowski attacked the Tarnów Branch for its alleged reactionary attitude. Gładysz countered: “The Tarnów Branch does indeed have a reactionary attitude, but in regard to people of the calibre of Mr Chlebowski. You [Chlebowski] are pursuing your destructive activities amongst people who are working for the good of the state. [...] Indeed, before the war you spent your time smashing windows.”106 A Tygodnik Powszechny journalist and former Ravensbrück prisoner, Eugenia Kocwa, also came out in support of Gładysz. She said that Chlebowski was trying to frighten the participants and that his speech proved he understood nothing about democracy. Despite Chlebowski’s attacks, Gładysz joined the Kraków Branch’s new Executive Board, which was appointed at the same meeting. The methods by which Communists often forced through their own candidates is also illustrated by the confrontation which took place at a general meeting of the PZbWP’s local branch in Nowy Sącz in March 1949. The minutes of the meeting show that a list of candidates for the branch’s Executive Board suddenly appeared on the chairman’s table. The list, however, was rejected by those present. A committee was appointed and ordered to draw up a new list of candidates. In response, a PZPR representative present at the meeting demanded to attend the committee’s session, stating that he had to “review the proposed list of candidates to the branch’s new Executive Board”.107 This demand was refused by the other participants, as a result of which, at the request of a delegate from the provincial branch, the meeting was closed.

Despite resistance, the efforts to foist the correct ideological line upon the Kraków Branch proved successful. According to the account of a Kraków Branch delegate to the PZbWP’s National Congress in July 1949, the association’s leadership in the Kraków province at the provincial and local level had initially been ← 47 | 48 → composed of people with inappropriate political views, PSL sympathisers and right-wing National Democrats (endecja), who had steered the organisation in a direction that was “inconsistent with the current system”. However, after a few colleagues had managed, “in the face of resistance from others”, to gain their first foothold in the Kraków Branch’s Executive Board in 1947, the situation slowly began to improve. By 1948, the delegate concluded, people “with views very similar to our own, and with an ideological and political attitude that nowadays should be mandatory” had joined the Kraków Branch’s Executive Board”.108

These personnel changes were accompanied by purges amongst the PZbWP’s rank and file. Political vetting was conducted from the moment the association was established until its eventual dissolution. The main purpose of vetting was to exclude from the ranks of the PZbWP people who had given false details about the time they or a family member had spent in a prison or concentration camp. Another important criterion of entry into the PZbWP was that the candidate should not have “sullied the good name of political prisoners” whilst in captivity.109 Initially, the main purpose of this rule was to exclude from the association persons who had participated in crimes during their captivity, such as the denunciation, murder, or ill-treatment of other prisoners. The disclosure of such cases led to the removal of a great many people from the association, a process aided by the robust vetting procedure. This included everything from the mandatory submission of character references from two former camp comrades who were existing members of the association to the publication of lists of candidates in the Wolni Ludzie magazine.

Over time, however, vetting was used as a means of removing politically suspect people from the association. An instruction sent in February 1948 from the Central Committee of the PPR to the PPR’s caucus within the PZbWP’s Executive Board stated that the recent elections to the PZbWP’s provincial branch authorities had displayed “an insufficient influence of democratic elements”.110 Consequently, the PPR Central Committee recommended that vetting be intensified in order to cleanse the association of “elements that have nothing to do with the term ‘political prisoner’”. First in the firing line would be members of local and provincial branch authorities and delegates to the national congress. It was recommended that the vetting committees be filled with PPR members.

At the turn of 1947/1948, members were vetted once again. The aim this time was to eliminate from the association all potential opponents of the new system. At the local vetting committee briefings, it was explicitly stated that “current ← 48 | 49 → political issues” should also be taken into account when vetting candidates.111 As one delegate to the PZbWP congress in the summer of 1949 candidly explained: “…we’re not saying that this is a purge, but we would very much like each member to have an appropriate class background…”.112

Some association activists, however, advocated greater prudence when removing politically suspect individuals from the PZbWP, since they feared it could decimate the association’s membership. They opposed treating all non-party individuals as a “reactionary element”; some, they felt, could still be brought over to the Communists’ side.113 One of the speakers at the PZbWP’s national congress in July 1949 warned the audience: “we won’t achieve anything […] through coercion […] as endorsed by some of our colleagues, who say that we have carried out a purge and gotten rid of the parasites, that the situation has improved because we have come to terms with the party, that this is all the party’s work”.114 There was no doubt, he continued, that “our party is quite rightly the preeminent force today—that is obvious and it is no secret—but we must learn from our great leaders [...], from our vanguard which holds the reins of government, that no individual should be ruthlessly eliminated just because he does not belong to the party or appears to hold reactionary views. We should not be adopting such an unyielding approach to these individuals in order to remove them from the movement and from public life. And especially not as far as our association is concerned, since our membership is necessarily limited. Our numbers are never going to rise, only diminish. But if we abandon the idea of love for one’s neighbour, the idea of civic education, which the Executive Board continually reminds us about, then we will be left without any members at all.” In response to these concerns, the then secretary-general of the association, Józef Passini, explained that it was not important whether a member of the association belonged to the party or had no party affiliation, whether he was secular or religious; what was important was that he should be progressive.

Vetting did not only serve to exclude politically suspect people from the association; changes in the PZbWP’s entry criteria also affected the organisation’s profile. The decision to admit into the association only those people who had been incarcerated in German prisons and concentration camps, and not, for instance, in penal or labour camps, was arbitrary and masked a number of inconsistencies. It ← 49 | 50 → seems that the decision to distinguish inmates of Nazi prisons and concentration camps from other groups of victims was founded on the belief that the conditions prevailing in prisons, and especially in concentration camps, were substantially worse than in other German camps.115 In practice, however, such a distinction was inadequate. In the spring of 1947, for instance, the PZbWP’s Central Vetting Committee received a letter from the PZbWP’s local branch in Kraków asking whether people who had been incarcerated in Płaszów, Skarżysko-Kamienna and Częstochowa could be admitted to the association.116 Although, the author of the letter argued, these were formally labour camps, the conditions there were especially harsh and comparable to those of the concentration camps. Perhaps to avoid these and similar questions, at the end of July 1947 the Central Vetting Committee sent out a circular in which it listed 100 camps whose former inmates would be eligible for membership in the PZbWP.117 The list also included a few labour camps, including Płaszów and Poniatowa.118

The second and probably decisive reason why entry into the association was open solely to former inmates of German prisons and concentration camps, and among them only those deemed to be political prisoners, was the belief that, unlike other categories of prisoner—Berufsverbrecher (career criminals) or Asoziale (“asocials”)119, for instance—they had been persecuted for “freedom and democracy”.120 Thus, it was assumed that political prisoners were those who had been sent to the camps for being members of the Polish resistance movement, and that therefore, as heroes and martyrs of the struggle against fascism, they deserved society’s gratitude and respect. Although the repression suffered by other prisoners had also been an aspect of Nazi occupation policy and had at times been equally severe, it was felt that such repression did not grant an entitlement to special privileges or benefits. In this way, the Central Vetting Committee to some extent duplicated the Nazi classification ← 50 | 51 → system, which had often proved inadequate in practice. First and foremost, the Nazis had classified as political prisoners not only those who had been incarcerated for their resistance activity but also those who had been detained pre-emptively, such as the professors of the Jagiellonian University and Academy of Mining in Kraków arrested in November 1939 and many others sent to camps in the first months of the war, as well as hostages and other people arrested during round-ups and other repressive measures. The Nazis had also classified as political prisoners the civilian population of Warsaw during the 1944 Uprising, as well as those who had been sent to the camps during the forced expulsions from the Zamość region at the turn of 1942/1943.121 The PZbWP statute left much unsaid in this regard. On the one hand, it stated that a member of the association could be any citizen of Poland who had been “imprisoned for freedom and democracy in fascist or Nazi prisons and concentration camps”; on the other, it recognised not only those who had been arrested for “political activity”, but also those who had been incarcerated for their “social position” or “nationality”122, as eligible for membership. Was it the case, therefore, that a person arrested “accidentally” during a round-up had been imprisoned for “freedom and democracy”? Another dilemma was whether to admit Jews into the association, since the Nazis had not usually classified Jews as political prisoners. This issue is discussed in the next chapter.

In subsequent years, the wording of the statute concerning the association’s admission rules was continually amended; it was also a subject of debate amongst the ex-prisoner community. The Central Vetting Committee’s rules and regulations from June 1946 specified the reasons for arrest that permitted membership in the PZbWP. In particular, the following persons were eligible to become members of the association:

a)   persons incarcerated for activities within underground political, military, social or educational organisations,

b)   persons incarcerated on account of their nationality, whether Polish, Jewish, etc., provided that the period of captivity had lasted at least three months (local vetting committees could waive this requirement under special circumstances),

c)   hostages (subject to point b).123

These admission rules, however, led to much uncertainty and misunderstanding. For this reason, as is shown by reports sent in to the Executive Board, during the ← 51 | 52 → first phase of the association’s existence the vetting procedure was fairly chaotic, with branch committees applying varying criteria.124

It was not until the second half of 1947 that the Central Vetting Committee decided to specify the association’s admission criteria in more precise terms. It clarified the circumstances under which local and branch committees could waive the requirement of a minimum of three months in captivity.125 This requirement would no longer apply to candidates who had been arrested less than three months prior to the end of the occupation, who had escaped from captivity, or who had acted particularly honourably whilst incarcerated in a prison or concentration camp, such as by being involved in the resistance movement or by helping their comrades in other ways. In another instruction sent out in December 1947, the Central Vetting Committee stipulated that membership in the PZbWP was open not only to those who could prove that they had been a member of a specific underground organisation, but also to those who had operated outside clandestine structures to the detriment of the occupying forces. The committee advised special caution in the case of people who had been arrested during a round-up or other random event not directly related to the struggle with the enemy, and in the case of candidates who had been taken hostage. Such people would need to demonstrate that they had adopted a patriotic attitude during the occupation. Their membership application would need to be accompanied by a CV describing their fortunes from the outbreak of war until the moment of arrest. The CV would also need to include information on the person’s involvement in the resistance movement or an explanation as to why they had not been involved. If a candidate could not demonstrate their involvement in clandestine activity, stated the instruction sent out to branch vetting committees, the committee should take into account the date of arrest. If the arrest took place after 1 January 1943, “in other words, at a time when the struggle against the enemy, in all its forms, had engulfed the entire country, then the candidate’s complete passivity should be properly understood as an indifference to the cause of liberation. Such a candidate, since he does not bear the hallmarks of an ideological or political prisoner, cannot in principle be admitted to the association. The committee may waive this rule if it is shown that the candidate, due to his personal circumstances (for instance, old age), pre-war activities or position, or on account of local conditions, etc., could not have participated in clandestine activity or in work for the good of the Polish nation, or ← 52 | 53 → that such participation would have been especially difficult.”126 The rule was to apply equally to civilians caught up in the Warsaw Uprising. Civilians sent to concentration camps during the Warsaw Uprising, stated an article published in the summer of 1948 in Dziennik Zachodni, were generally treated only as “victims of war”.127 The PZbWP would only admit those people who could prove that they had been active in the resistance movement prior to their arrest or during their time spent in a concentration camp. As the above description shows, the PZbWP’s admission criteria became increasingly rigorous. According to the Central Vetting Committee’s instruction of December 1947, in practice the only people eligible for membership in the PZbWP were those who in some way, whether in captivity or not, had been active in the resistance movement, even if this had not been the direct cause of their arrest. Thus, at least formally, the PZbWP was gradually transformed from an association of victims into a veterans’ organisation.

The introduction of stricter admissions criteria by the PZbWP’s Central Vetting Committee gave rise to numerous controversies amongst the ex-prisoner community. The authors of some branch vetting committee reports complained that the majority of candidates believed that they were entitled to become members of the PZbWP just by virtue of having been in a concentration camp or prison. The authors of other reports suggested that the vetting procedure ought to focus less on the reasons for arrest and more on the candidates’ conduct during captivity and their current political views. As late as in the summer of 1949, one delegate to the PZbWP’s national congress complained that the Central Vetting Committee’s instructions were exceptionally complex and “rigorous”, which slowed the vetting process considerably and restricted the association’s membership.128

The PZbWP’s admissions criteria, and thus the very identity of political prisoners, were also debated in Wolni Ludzie. In the spring of 1948, the magazine published an article by Bolesław Rozmarynowicz, the deputy chairman of the Kraków Branch’s Executive Board, in which the author analysed the association’s membership criteria in detail. “We have received comments from various quarters,” wrote Rozmarynowicz, “such as ‘your association also has members who had nothing to do with politics’ or ‘I know people who should not be in the association because they stood apart from politics when they were in the camp’ [...] That even members of the association are confused by this state of affairs is evidenced by the motion put forward at the General Assembly of one of the most important local ← 53 | 54 → branches, namely, that we should create a separate Political Prisoners’ Section.”129 Rozmarynowicz felt that this was the wrong approach. According to him, political prisoners were not only those who had ended up in captivity due to their clandestine activities, but also hostages, “provided there is no doubt that the arrest of the persons concerned and their incarceration in a prison or concentration camp was done for political reasons”, and all those who had been the victims of political repression by the Nazis against the Polish population. Rozmarynowicz believed that the most contentious category was that of persons who had been rounded up on the street and subsequently sent to a concentration camp. Such actions, he argued, were not always political in nature, and in some cases were designed to target the black market, pedlars, etc. “It will thus be necessary to consider, in each case, whether the motive for a particular action perpetrated by the occupying forces was essentially political in nature.” Rozmarynowicz suggested, therefore, that the motive by which the occupying forces had been guided, and not the candidate’s actual involvement in underground activity, should be seen as the basis for admission to the association. He regretted the fact that the rules contained in the PZbWP’s statute and in the Central Vetting Committee’s instructions were ambiguous and inconsistent in this regard. As a result, vetting committees were often forced to follow their own intuition, which meant that different criteria were applied across local and provincial branches: “some committees were very strict, while others resolved matters with a ‘broad brush’”. The Central Vetting Committee, Rozmarynowicz concluded, should therefore strive to standardise the vetting procedure.

A short note appeared in the next issue of Wolni Ludzie from the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Andrzej Kobyłecki. He reminded readers that not all people whom the Nazis had categorised as political prisoners were imprisoned for their activities in the resistance movement. Many had ended up in the camps “accidentally” or through sheer recklessness: “That we so often boast about our experience of the camps and highlight its importance creates a fertile ground for weeds. We all know that being sent to prison or camp was nothing to be proud of. It was sometimes just a matter of coincidence or—let’s be frank—all too often the result of recklessness or even stupidity. That is why we former political prisoners should not take any credit for the very fact of having been in a Nazi concentration camp, and none of us should be treated by society as an especially worthy person or as a professional ‘martyr’ who takes advantage of his status.”130 It was precisely this sort of reasoning, argued Kobyłecki, that informed the PZbWP’s admission ← 54 | 55 → policy, since the Central Vetting Committee took into account a candidate’s “pre-camp activities” above all else.

Kobyłecki’s article prompted a storm of protest amongst readers. In a letter published in a subsequent issue of the magazine, a former Stutthof prisoner, Jan Rompski, expressed his outrage at the editor’s suggestion that those who had been sent to the camps not for their resistance activities but as a result of “coincidence” should no longer be seen as political prisoners.131 Irrespective of the reason for arrest, argued Rompski, the association could not deny help to people who had suffered physical or psychological harm whilst in a concentration camp which had left them, for instance, unable to work. The vetting committee should, therefore, focus solely on whether a given person had indeed been an inmate of a concentration camp and whether he had behaved in an appropriate manner.

In his response, published in the next issue of the magazine, Kobyłecki wrote that it was necessary to face the truth that most people had ended up in the camps by accident. Yet even those incarcerated for their activities in the resistance movement had nothing to be proud of. Being sent to a concentration camp had to be considered a failure. The Germans arrested members of the underground in order to render them harmless, and in most cases they succeeded. Indeed, very few camps had an organised resistance movement. This was limited to “very few individuals, with the exception of two camps: Buchenwald and Auschwitz, where the resistance movement was more organised. The reason is that in most camps the vast majority of inmates were not drawn from the ranks of freedom fighters, but were instead people who had ended up there by accident, even by mistake. Those who knew the reason for their incarceration were in a small minority. [...] For the mass of inmates, resistance simply meant staying alive, almost at any cost.”132 Therefore, argued Kobyłecki, “none of us should see our time in the camp as something to be proud of because […] a lost battle is never deserving of praise; it is merely the result of coincidence of one sort or another. However, incarceration was certainly an injustice done to us by the enemy. And there is no doubt that such an injustice ought to be remedied as far as is possible.” For this reason, one of the tasks of the PZbWP should be to “remedy, where possible, the injustices suffered by concentration camp victims—perhaps by intensifying the programme of social care”. Thus, Kobyłecki de facto deprived political prisoners in general of their hero status, granting them in return the right to claim welfare payments, understood as compensation for their suffering. At the same time, however, he avoided answering the crucial question of who was entitled to belong to the association—only those who had “lost” the battle or also those who had not even participated ← 55 | 56 → in it and had ended up in the camps “by accident”. What is most surprising about the article is that Kobyłecki reinforced—contrary to the official policy of the PZbWP’s leadership and initially, it would seem, contrary to his own intentions—the image of the association as a repository of victims and “whingers”, but not of heroes. Soon afterwards, Kobyłecki left the editorial board of Wolni Ludzie.

At the turn of 1947/1948, in parallel to the political purges and changes in admissions criteria, a campaign was launched to close down more PZbWP-run enterprises on the pretext of cleansing the association of “profiteers”. Finally, in October 1948, the Supreme Council passed a resolution to disband the Retail Trade Organisation (CHD).133 The background to these developments was the “struggle for trade”, which was conducted across Poland from the spring of 1947, and which in 1948 also led to the nationalisation of the co-operative sector. The claim that association structures were being used for personal enrichment was also often used as an argument to allow the association to rid itself of politically inconvenient members. In this regard, no distinction was made between “reaction” and “profiteering”. This is well illustrated by a statement made in October 1947 by the chairman of the PZbWP’s Supreme Council: “There is no place in the association for reactionary elements and they must be eliminated. The association cannot allow itself to be used to further private interests.”134 Another step towards transforming the association from a self-help organisation into a political organisation was the dissolution of the Social Welfare Council (ROS) at the beginning of 1949 and its replacement by a Social Welfare Department directly subordinate to the PZbWP’s Executive Board.135 Perhaps one of the reasons for the dissolution of the ROS was that—as one member of the Basic Party Cell (POP) within the PZbWP’s Executive Board stated in October 1948—the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR) had failed to take control of the Council.136 In any case, limiting the association’s welfare activities was in line with the general policy of the Executive Board.

← 56 | 57 → The Struggle against “Victimhood”

The personnel and organisational changes within the association were accompanied by a propaganda campaign under the slogan of “the struggle against victimhood”. Pressure was put on the PZbWP’s local and provincial branches to limit self-help activities and place greater emphasis on ideological work. The fact that these changes were initiated by Communists is shown by an instruction sent in mid-February 1948 from the Central Committee of the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR) to the PPR caucus within the PZbWP’s Executive Board. Aside from a directive to intensify the vetting campaign, the instruction also recommended stepping up propaganda in order to convince the ex-prisoner community of the need to combat the moral consequences of the occupation by “disseminating pride about [Poland’s] victory, awareness of the nation’s strength, and optimism about the future”.137 We should not “foster an atmosphere of mourning”, the instruction continued. “The commemoration of victims of Nazi terror should be kept within reasonable limits and should focus on valour, and not suffering; political prisoners should not be treated as ‘priests of martyrdom’ but rather as conscious and active members of society”.

Pressure was also brought to bear on the editorial board of Wolni Ludzie. Already at the session of the Presidium of the PZbWP’s Executive Board in September 1947, an accusation was made that the magazine devoted too much space to “martyrdom” and not enough to texts that could give the magazine a “clear ideological direction”.138 During 1948, Wolni Ludzie published an increasing number of articles on current political matters. For instance, in a special issue of the magazine to coincide with the third anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald, Zygmunt Balicki, secretary-general of the Fédération Internationale des Anciens Prisonniers Politiques (FIAPP), declared that former concentration camp prisoners were against “the policy of the imperialist powers in the western occupation zones of Germany; a policy whose purpose is to rebuild German economic and military might as a bastion of aggression against democratic nations”.139 Balicki also held the British and Americans jointly responsible for Nazi crimes: “The victims of Nazism, which was brought into being by German corporations supported by foreign capital, will expose the plans of American corporations which, under the hypocritical guise of bringing aid to the countries of Europe, wish to destroy the economic and political independence of those countries, obliterate their democratic gains won at the cost of countless victims and a sea of blood, and establish fascist regimes run by the faithful lackeys of domestic and foreign capital.”

← 57 | 58 → Aside from such propagandist articles, which appeared regularly throughout 1948, there were no profound changes in the character of the magazine or in the image of the past it promoted. Recollections of the camps published in Wolni Ludzie continued to be dominated by crimes and suffering. Although contributors would also write about survival strategies—from the “organisation” of food and barter to cultural and religious life and solidarity amongst prisoners—only sporadic reference was made to the organised resistance movement.

It was not until the first half of 1949 that a clear shift of emphasis occurred in the way Wolni Ludzie presented the reality of the camps. This was accompanied by yet another change in the post of editor-in-chief.140 Sergiusz Jaśkiewicz was replaced by Teofil Witek after the former was arrested for improper conduct during his time in the camps.141 At the PZbWP’s national congress in July 1949, when reporting on the work of the magazine, Witek declared:

[...] we do not wish to publish gruesome descriptions in Wolni Ludzie. We want to finish with victimhood and martyrdom. Our aim is to elicit the positive themes and moments from the history of the concentration camps, in other words, to focus on the struggle, on that which is good and uplifting, and not divisive.142

To prove that the magazine’s editorial board was going in the right direction, Witek cited two recently published articles on the subject of Buchenwald, which, he argued, “highlight that struggle, that positive aspect, namely, that it is not just about the atrocities of the SS, but also about the resistance of the prisoners—about the inspirational acts of people destined for extermination.” There was also one other change: while earlier articles on the resistance movement in the camps had spoken of the cooperation amongst supporters of various political parties and groupings, now the conspirators were all Communists or Communist sympathisers. In the second half of 1949, Wolni Ludzie ran a series of articles on the resistance movement in Buchenwald, in which Communists were presented as the leading force in the anti-fascist resistance movement.143 It was no accident that the ← 58 | 59 → editors had chosen to focus on the history of precisely this concentration camp. In occupied Poland, Communists had accounted for only a small part of the resistance movement. The PPR’s forces had been modest compared to those of the Polish Underground State (Państwo Podziemne) and Home Army (AK), which were loyal to the Government-in-Exile, or to those of other armed underground organisations such as the Peasant Battalions (BCH) and National Armed Forces (NSZ). Whereas in 1943 the AK could boast 250,000 soldiers, the PPR-controlled People’s Guard (GL) had around 10,000.144 Both organisations had a corresponding proportion of members in the concentration camps. This is a significant difference compared to France and other West European countries, where communists played a greater role in the anti-fascist resistance movement. In Germany, too, the proportion of communists among underground activists was much greater than in Poland. Many members of the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD) ended up in Buchenwald. It was one of very few concentration camps where a fairly broad international resistance network, dominated by German Communists, had operated during the war.145 As early as in the 1940s, the history of Buchenwald acquired—not without the contribution of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED)—a legendary status; the articles published in Wolni Ludzie simply repeated this legend for the benefit of Polish readers.146

← 59 | 60 → The final issue of Wolni Ludzie came out in August 1949. In early September, following the merger between the Polish Association of Former Political Prisoners (PZbWP) and the Union of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy (ZBoWiD), Wolni Ludzie was replaced by a new magazine—Za Wolność i Lud [For Freedom and the People]. In this new publication there was no place for martyrdom; if the Nazi camps were mentioned at all, it was solely in the context of the resistance movement. An article by Mariusz Kwiatkowski about the Majdanek Museum reflected the fact that members of the resistance were now synonymous with Communists. The museum display, wrote Kwiatkowski, should present not only crimes and suffering but also the history of the resistance movement within the camp: “The Majdanek inmates did not only suffer and perish”; they also “fought as far as the terrible living conditions would allow. And they believed in tomorrow. Perhaps not in their own tomorrow, but in the future of the cause for which they perished. Not for nothing does the old clothing bear labels which read: ‘political—particularly dangerous’. It was communists of all nationalities who wore that clothing.”147

The politicisation of the association and its subordination to PPR/PZPR directives encountered stiff resistance amongst the ex-prisoner community. As one Szczecin Branch delegate to the PZbWP’s National Congress in July 1949 noted, “the reactionary forces in our local branch initially closed ranks to such an extent” that members who had “worked selflessly and who understood the directives of our leaders” were not allowed to speak.148 Although, the delegate continued, the purges carried out amongst the Szczecin Branch’s leadership as a result of intervention by the association’s Executive Board had significantly weakened these reactionary forces, there were still local branches where ideological enemies held positions of power. A delegate from Lublin also questioned the efficacy of the personnel changes in the association’s leadership. He complained about the insufficient political engagement of PZbWP activists, “who are involved only with our association and are in many cases completely detached from public life”. “As soon as we would do some political or public work, these pseudo-colleagues would turn away from us and look on from the sidelines.” Likewise, a delegate from the Pomorski (Pomeranian) Branch admitted that although the association had been quite active in the years 1947-1948, this activity had been completely devoid of “ideological aspects”. “The only topic of our meetings was the deeply entrenched victimhood of our members, their desire for privileges, their constant demands for disability pensions, rail discounts, etc. All this self-pity was reducing the association to the level of a mutual admiration society for martyrs. Most members of the Executive Board did not ← 60 | 61 → understand, or did not want to understand, that charity work is not the sole aim of our association”, and that “[its] main tasks […] are to mobilise the rank and file for the purpose of rebuilding our devastated country, to raise the political consciousness of our members, to adopt a tough and unyielding stance against the machinations of the imperialist camp, and to cooperate as much as possible with the Party, which is realising the long-held desire of Polish working people for social justice”. Overall, in the opinion of one member of the PZbWP’s Executive Board, despite initial resistance from the ex-prisoner community the “struggle against victimhood” had proved to be a success, and former prisoners, “instead of isolating themselves from the rest of society” and “reliving for the thousandth time their experiences from the prisons and camps”, were becoming increasingly involved “in political and public life…”.149 Also, the changing character of remembrance ceremonies was noted with satisfaction. According to a delegate of the Pomorski Branch, “whereas in 1946-47 one could detect a note of self-pity in the commemorations, in 1948 the prevailing mood at all such events is one of cooperation with the Soviet Union and with the People’s Democracies in our struggle for peace and for a better future free of human exploitation”.

It would seem, however, that the “struggle against victimhood” campaign pursued by the association’s leadership enjoyed genuine support amongst a section of the ex-prisoner community. Members of the association feared that if their own suffering was over-emphasised, it could lead to public disapproval and cause the organisation to lose importance. In private discussions the complaint was often made that former prisoners were not treated on the same terms as veterans. Stanisław Jagielski, a former inmate of Płaszów and Auschwitz-Birkenau, was one of those to express concern about the image of the association’s members. In response to an accusation made by one of his former camp comrades that in his memoir published in 1946150 he had overlooked many crimes and presented an embellished picture of camp life, Jagielski explained that in writing about his experiences he had not intended to give a full account of the reality of the concentration camps. His purpose had been, above all, to describe those things which had enabled himself and his comrades to survive. Had they not escaped into a land of dreams, turned a blind eye to the cruelty around them, and tried to create an internal world and remain cheerful, they would not have managed to survive. “And you, my friends,” appealed Jagielski, “you too should abandon this terrible ballast. There is nothing to savour. It is time you stopped being tiresome passengers with hideous baggage. We shall always understand each other, so why introduce others to our world? It only provokes anxiety and disgust.”151

← 61 | 62 → Conducted from the end of 1947, the “struggle against victimhood” campaign was not limited to the ex-prisoner community; it encompassed society at large. In his book on the image of Germans and of the Nazi occupation in the second half of the 1940s in Poland, Edmund Dmitrów argues that people’s wartime experiences were increasingly ignored.152 The Polish press stressed the need to overcome wartime trauma and look to the future. According to Dmitrów, these changes were driven by the Communist authorities, who sought to counter the martyrological view of the occupation with their own “heroic-progressive” interpretation. “In official circles, the administrators of culture believed that post-war literature was too focused on crimes and martyrdom, that ‘heinous acts were talked about too widely and too often’. They felt that when it came to the image of the Nazi occupation, it would be better to highlight the themes of active struggle and guerrilla warfare, and generally to direct people’s interest towards contemporary problems.”153 However, as Dmitrów points out, the “struggle against victimhood” campaign was to some extent in tune with the prevailing social and intellectual mood. Similar views were also expressed by certain columnists who were not at all connected with the regime.

One of the first columnists to tackle this problem at the literary level was Stanisław Kisielewski. In an article for the Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny published in mid-May 1945, thus barely two weeks after the end of the war, Kisielewski expressed his regret that Polish literature was dominated by the theme of occupation.154 Readers, he claimed, were weary of the terrible experiences of recent years; they needed to detach themselves from painful memories and restore a sense of moral equilibrium. Kisielewski believed that war literature was hampered by a lack of distance from the events it described and that the realistic memoirs and fiction being published in vast quantities were largely devoid of artistic merit. One cannot, argued Kisielewski, flood readers with “Auschwitz-Majdanek” literature and war stories. The task of the writer should be to “liberate society from its wartime horrors, and not to ram them down its throat”. Although the article was well received by some colleagues at Tygodnik Powszechny, Kisielewski’s view was an isolated one. In the following years, however, the Polish press published an increasing number of texts that were critical of the excessive naturalism and gruesomeness of Polish war literature. According to Dmitrów, “this reflected the evolution in the immediate post-war years of readers’ attitudes towards the way in which the subject of the occupation was usually ← 62 | 63 → presented in Polish literature”.155 However, while writers such as Stefan Kisielewski, Stanisław Lem and Zofia Starowieyska-Morstinowa advocated a more profound coming to terms with the experience of occupation rather than its neglect, the Communist authorities wanted to end all debate on the subject of the past.156

In the first days of September 1949, the Founding Congress of the Union of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy (ZBoWiD) took place in Warsaw. The newly-formed organisation comprised a dozen or so prisoners’ and veterans’ associations, including the Polish Association of Former Political Prisoners.157 The creation of ZBoWiD entailed the centralisation of all existing prisoners’ and veterans’ organisations and their total subordination to the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR). At the symbolic level, this meant that concentration camp prisoners were equated, once and for all, with fighters in the anti-fascist resistance movement. A text published on the eve of Founding Congress by Bernard Fuksiewicz, deputy chairman of the PZbWP’s Executive Board, illustrates this perfectly. Fuksiewicz explained that both the Polish Association of Former Political Prisoners on the one hand, and the Union of Fighters against Fascism and the Nazi Invasion for Freedom and Democracy (which later merged with ZBoWiD) on the other, had a common origin, namely, “the struggle against fascism and the Nazi invasion”. If, despite this, two separate organisations had been established in the immediate post-war years, this was only due to the “different course of events related to their struggle, during which some combatants were arrested by the Nazi police apparatus and ended up in prisons or concentration camps, while others continued to fight as free men and women”.158 After the war, both groups were “directly influenced by their most recent experiences: former political prisoners—by the cruelty, suffering, and resistance under difficult conditions in the concentration camps; former participants of the armed struggle—by their combat experience in partisan or military units”. Initially, therefore, the creation of two separate associations had been justified. Now, however, argued Fuksiewicz, in light of the recent changes that had occurred in Poland and around the world, the time had come to unite.

* * *

A common view held by researchers investigating Polish memory of the Second World War is that the roots of the martyrological-heroic interpretation of the war ← 63 | 64 → and occupation, so dominant in the post-war years, should be sought in the traditions of Polish Romanticism.159 Thus, for instance, Jonathan Huener, the author of a monograph on the Auschwitz Museum, writes:

The term “martyrdom”, a constituent element of Poland’s post-war commemorative vocabulary, is a useful indicator of Polish considerations of Auschwitz and the place of the camp in the county’s culture. “Martyrs”, “martyrdom”, and “martyrology” were consistently used to describe Auschwitz victims, their fate, and their memory.160

Although Huener admits that in the immediate post-war years the victims of Nazi oppression were perceived as martyrs in many European countries, in Poland, he argues, this interpretation had specifically Catholic and national overtones:

For Poles, however, the specifically Polish and Christian overtones in these terms—natural to their traditional Roman Catholic discourse—were obvious, and lent the Auschwitz inmate a quality of virtue and sacrifice for a higher good, such as patriotism or socialism. Polish prisoners or “martyrs” at Auschwitz were not simply suffering, but suffering and dying because of their Catholic faith, their political convictions, or their love of the fatherland.

This did not necessarily imply the exclusion of other nationalities from the community of victims, but it nevertheless negated the diversity of experience of the various persecuted groups: “In any case, to designate all Polish and non-Polish victims as “martyrs” was to keep Auschwitz in a conventional trope of nineteenth-century romantic nationalism and to undermine the historical uniqueness of the camp and the diversity of experience there.”

To be sure, the 19th-century messianic tradition played a significant role in shaping society’s image of the war and occupation. As mentioned earlier, this martyrological-heroic narrative appeared in Poland shortly after, or even during, the Second World War; it was not, however, the dominant narrative at the time. In the 1940s, there was no consensus in Poland on how to interpret the experience of the concentration camps; it was rather a source of permanent conflict and controversy. The experience of helplessness so common among former camp inmates proved especially difficult to reconcile with the idea that only defenders of the Fatherland and defenders of ideas were considered worthy of respect.161

← 64 | 65 → How Polish memory of the Second World War would have evolved had the Communists not come to power remains an open question. There is no doubt, however, that the political history of the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR), and then of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR), had a decisive impact on the nature of this memory during the period of the Polish People’s Republic (PRL). The tendency to highlight struggle and heroism—particularly that of Communist activists—and simultaneously to denigrate and marginalise civilian war victims, was a phenomenon that could be observed in the Soviet Union and in other countries of the Eastern bloc, too. In the USSR, a cult of war heroes took hold, encompassing Red Army soldiers and Communist partisans, while victims of Nazism, forced labourers, Soviet prisoners of war, and other concentration camp inmates were often persecuted as traitors and defeatists.162 The myth of the “Great Patriotic War”, according to which all the peoples of the Soviet Union fought in unison against the fascist invader until final victory, served to legitimise and consolidate the Stalinist regime. There was no place in this myth for the suffering of civilians and soldiers, for internal national or political conflicts, for collaboration with the Nazis or, finally, for errors in the art of war which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

The glorification of concentration camp victims in socialist countries in the immediate post-war years is well illustrated by the example of the GDR; it culminated in the Buchenwald Memorial (Buchenwald Mahnmal), unveiled in 1958. The monument gave artistic expression to the legend, promoted by the SED leadership, of the communist resistance movement in Buchenwald. Designed as a secular Via Dolorosa and crowned with a Freedom Tower (Freiheitsturm), it was a symbol of the ultimate ← 65 | 66 → victory of socialism over fascism. The Buchenwald inmates were portrayed as fighters of the anti-fascist communist resistance movement, while other categories of victim were ignored.163 Raising members of the communist resistance movement to the rank of heroes served to legitimise the German rump state governed by the SED, and the GDR was to be the successor of this tradition. It is no accident that the Buchenwald myth was revitalised when the GDR experienced a major crisis of legitimacy precipitated by the uprising of 17 June 1953.

At the same time, however, in the Soviet occupation zone of Germany, and then in the GDR, successive groups were systematically excluded from the community of victims and heroes; in February 1947, the Society of People Persecuted by the Nazi Regime (Vereinigung der Verfolgten des Naziregimes, VVN) was established in Germany.164 Initially, the VVN accepted political prisoners—German communists, social democrats, and members of other parties—as well as Jews, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and representatives of other groups of victims. As in the case of the PZbWP, over subsequent years, under pressure from the SED and the Soviet Military Administration, it evolved inexorably from a society of victims into an association of resistance movement fighters. The society was accused of concentrating too much on welfare activities and not enough on political issues. Changes took place not only at the level of rhetoric. Purges within the VVN leadership saw the organisation become completely subordinated to the SED. At the same time, certain groups of victims were excluded. Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were banned in the GDR, were thrown out of the organisation in 1950. The anti-Semitic campaign pursued in the GDR in 1949-1952 led to the emigration of many Jews who had belonged to the VVN; others were expelled from the society as “Zionist agents”. Numerous members of the non-communist resistance movement, including participants of the July Bomb Plot against Hitler, were removed from the organisation. The VVN was finally disbanded in 1953, its place taken by ← 66 | 67 → an elite body known as the Committee of Anti-fascist Resistance Fighters (Komitee der Antifaschistischen Widerstandskämpfer, KdAW), which was composed solely of 32 trusted party comrades.

As Pieter Lagrou describes in his book on the legacy of the German occupation in West European countries, even there the heroic interpretation of the wartime experience was dominant until the 1960s. Although, as Lagrou stresses, the occupation was much less onerous than in Central and Eastern Europe, West European societies were nonetheless traumatised and needed a patriotic narrative that would allow them to restore a sense of national dignity. For this reason, in France, the Netherlands, and Belgium alike, there was a tendency to exaggerate the importance of the resistance movement and to accord it a decisive role in the victory over Third Reich. This was particularly noticeable in France, where a battle over memory was fought between the Gaullists and the Communists. Whereas Gaullist “historical policy” was exceptionally elitist—veneration being restricted to a few military heroes, soldiers of the Free French (Forces Françaises Libres) and selected members of the Résistance, with the total exclusion of the left—the Communist interpretation of the wartime experience was far more inclusive. This also pertained to memory of the concentration camps: French Communists regarded not only political prisoners and members of the resistance movement, but also other victims of Nazi persecution, including Jews, as martyrs and heroes in the struggle against fascism. Such inclusivity was reflected in the admission rules to French victims’ and veterans’ associations, which were dominated by the left: “The inclusion assimilated all victims with national martyrs. All were patriots and as such participated in the spirit if not the battles of the resistance.”165 Although this extension of the notions of patriot and veteran to civilian war victims provoked criticism from the “defenders of traditional patriotism”, who opposed the identification of “true” combatants with the new type of anti-fascist martyr, the Communist-dominated victims’ associations managed to acquire considerable standing in French society.166

In Palestine, too, and then in Israel until the 1960s, people spoke unwillingly about the Holocaust, and if they did it was to recall heroic episodes such as the revolts in Treblinka and Sobibór, the uprisings in the Warsaw and Białystok ghettos, and the participation of Jewish soldiers in battles on the side of the Allies.167 This ← 67 | 68 → manner of presenting history concealed a need to set an example to young Israelis, who—it was believed—unlike Jews from the diaspora, had to learn to fight for their rights. Participation in the struggle against Nazism was also to be a bargaining chip in the creation of a Jewish state. Holocaust survivors were thus admitted to Palestine, and then to Israel, without any great enthusiasm. Immigrants from Europe were scorned, since it was believed that they had not resisted the Germans and had gone passively to their deaths. There was also a widespread view that only immoral, corrupt, and egotistical individuals could have survived the war. Palestinian Jews felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for Holocaust survivors with all their psychological and physiological problems. In the nascent state, at war with its neighbours, there was no place for sympathy and grief. As Amos Oz described it in his autobiographical work, A Tale of Love and Darkness, the Yishuv treated European Holocaust survivors “with compassion and a certain revulsion: miserable wretches, was it our fault that they chose to sit and wait for Hitler instead of coming here while there was still time? Why did they allow themselves to be led like sheep to the slaughter instead of organising and fighting back? And if only they’d stop nattering on in Yiddish, and stop telling us about all the things that were done to them over there, because all that didn’t reflect too well on them or on us for that matter.”168

Since in different countries, with different histories and political systems, one can observe in the first decades after the war similar attempts to glorify the memory of war and occupation, either by expelling certain groups of victims from society or excluding them from public discourse (as in the USSR, the GDR, and Israel)169, or by hailing them en bloc as national heroes (as in France), the question arises whether the tendency to perceive one’s own role in history as that of a hero and not a victim is a common cultural trait of all European societies in the 19th and first half of the 20th century.170 Indeed, as the example of Poland shows, the process of glorifying victims often took place against the wishes of those concerned. ← 68 | 69 → Regardless of differences in political systems, glorification always served to integrate society and to legitimise authority (France under de Gaulle, the Polish People’s Republic) or a state’s very existence (Israel, the GDR). Naturally, in authoritarian or totalitarian states the official interpretation of history enjoyed a significantly stronger position than in democratic countries, where it was continually modified and questioned by competing memory groups. ← 69 | 70 →


1     “Wyjazd delegatów b. więźniów politycznych na Kongres do Warszawy”, Gazeta Ludowa, 3 Feb. 1946; “B. Więźniowie awangardą walki z faszyzmem. Rezolucje kongresu b. więźniów politycznych obozów niemieckich”, Życie Warszawy, 6 Feb. 1946.

2     Maria Jezierska, “Obrachunek”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 1 Sep. 1946.

3     Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, Z otchłani. Wspomnienia z Lagru, Częstochowa–Poznań 1946, p. 29.

4     Zbigniew Suchocki, “Nasze zadanie—wypełnimy!”, Wolni Ludzie, 1-15 Nov. 1948.

5     The meaning of the concept of “martyr” is aptly defined by Pieter Lagrou: “Martyrs (Gr. μάρτυρ, ‘witness’) are no ordinary, innocent and arbitrary victims: they suffer or die, in the original sense of early Christianity, because of their faith; their faith is both cause and effect of their suffering. Martyrs are targeted as victims of persecution because of their witnessing of their faith, but through their ordeals they also deliver the most powerful proof, or witness, of their faith.” (Lagrou, The Legacy of Nazi Occupation, p. 211.) In the secular meaning of the word, martyrs are those who suffer and die in the name of a higher cause; thus their martyrdom is the result of their individual choice.

6     There are considerable discrepancies in estimates as to the number of Polish citizens who perished during the Second World War. This breakdown can therefore offer only a very approximate indication of the scale of Poland’s biological losses in the years 1939-1945. The sources used are the very latest Polish publications on the subject: Mateusz Gniazdowski, “Damages Inflicted on Poland by the Germans During the Second World War: an Outline of Research and Estimates” in Witold M. Góralski (ed.) Polish-German Relations and the Effects of the Second World War, Warsaw 2006; Adam Eberhardt, Mateusz Gniazdowski, Tytus Jaskułowski, Maciej Krzysztofowicz, “Szkody wyrządzone Polsce podczas II wojny światowej przez agresora niemieckiego. Historia dociekań i szacunków” in Witold M. Góralski (ed.) Problem reparacji, odszkodowań i świadczeń w stosunkach polsko-niemieckich 1944-2004, Vol. 1, Warszawa 2004; Józef Marszałek, “Bilanse II wojny światowej” in Zygmunt Mańkowski (ed.) Druga wojna światowa. Osądy, bilanse, refleksje, Lublin 1996; Krystyna Kersten, “Szacunek strat osobowych w Polsce Wschodniej”, Dzieje Najnowsze 26, 2 (1994); Czesław Łuczak, “Szanse i trudności bilansu demograficznego Polski w latach 1939-1945”, ibid.; Józef Marszałek, “Stan badań nad stratami osobowymi ludności żydowskiej Polski oraz nad liczbą ofiar obozów zagłady w okupowanej Polsce”, ibid.

7     Włodzimierz Borodziej, “Sprawa polska i przemieszczenia ludności w czasie II wojny światowej” in Włodzimierz Borodziej and Hans Lemberg (eds) Niemcy w Polsce 1945-1950. Wybór dokumentów, Vol. 1, Warszawa 2000, pp. 69, 97-98.

8     Eugeniusz Misiło, Foreword to Akcja „Wisła”. Dokumenty, compiled idem, Warszawa 1993, p. 32

9     Józef Adelson, “W Polsce zwanej ludową” in Jerzy Tomaszewski (ed.) Najnowsze dzieje Żydów w Polsce, Warszawa 1993, pp. 405-424.

10   Jacek Borkowicz, “Wygnańcy i wypędzeni” in Włodzimierz Borodziej and Artur Hajnicz (eds) Kompleks wypędzenia, Kraków 1998, pp. 192-194.

11   Krystyna Kersten, Repatriacja ludności polskiej po II wojnie światowej (Studium historyczne), Wrocław 1974, p. 225.

12   Czesław Osękowski, Społeczeństwo Polski zachodniej i północnej w latach 1945-1956, Zielona Góra 1994, p. 63.

13   Kersten, Repatriacja, pp. 58-59.

14   For instance, in Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau and its sub-camps, the Red Army found a total of around 10,000 prisoners left behind by the SS during the evacuation of the camps; only a small proportion of this number were Polish citizens (Józef Marszałek, Majdanekobóz koncentracyjny w Lublinie, Warszawa 1987, pp. 170-176; Anna Wiśniewska and Czesław Rajca, Majdanek. The Concentration Camp of Lublin, Lublin 1997, p. 61; Auschwitz 1940-1945. Węzłowe zagadnienia z dziejów obozu, edited by Wacław Długoborski and Franciszek Piper, Oświęcim 1995, Vol. 5, p. 35—hereinafter cited after the Polish edition unless stated otherwise). In Stutthof at liberation on 8-9 May 1945 there remained no more than around 100 prisoners of the concentration camp and fewer than 20,000 civilians previously evacuated from East Prussia and Pomerania. This number also included prisoners of war and forced labourers. Stutthof lay within the pre-war boundaries of the Free City of Danzig (Konrad Ciechanowski et al., Stutthof. Hitlerowski obóz koncentracyjny, Warszawa 1988, p. 317). On reaching the main Gross-Rosen camp on 13 February 1945, the Red Army found no prisoners. The number of prisoners liberated from Gross-Rosen sub-camps in subsequent months is not known (Isabell Spenger, “Das KZ Groß-Rosen in der letzten Kriegsphase” in Ulrich Herbert, Karin Orth and Christoph Dickmann (eds) Die nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager. Entwicklung und Struktur, Vol. 2, Göttingen 1998; Karin Orth, Das System der national-sozialistischen Konzentrationslager. Eine politische Organisationsgeschichte, Hamburg 1999, pp. 279-281).

15   Kersten, Repatriacja, p. 53, 57.

16   Tadeusz Sas-Jaworski, “Powrót pracowników przymusowych”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 3 Jun. 1945.

17   Officer-in-Chief of the Dept of Labour and Social Care at the Kraków Provincial Office to the Div. of Social Care at the Ministry of Labour and Social Care (MPiOS), 8 May 1945, Central Archives of Modern Records (AAN), MPiOS 386.

18   Report by the Municipal Committee for Social Welfare to the Special Commissioner for Care of Former Concentration Camp Prisoners, Kraków 3 Aug. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 386.

19   Numbers of prisoners liberated from Majdanek given in the sources vary: Marszałek, Majdanek, pp. 170-176 (480); Wiśniewska, Rajca, Majdanek, p. 61 (1,500).

20   Andrzej Strzelecki, Endphase des KL Auschwitz. Evakuierung, Liquidierung und Befreiung des Lagers, Oświęcim 1995, p. 256; Auschwitz 1940-1945, Vol. 5, p. 35.

21   Report on the scope of aid to prisoners and their families in the period 18 Jan.–22 Feb. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 386. On the subject of transports of former prisoners and their vicissitudes in the first months after liberation, see also: Strzelecki, Ewakuacja, likwidacja i wyzwolenie KL Auschwitz, Oświęcim 1982, pp. 214-219; Auschwitz 1940-1945, Vol. 5, pp. 38-40.

22   Minutes of the meeting of members of the medical and technical committee of the Commission for the Investigation of German Nazi Crimes in Auschwitz, 18 Apr. 1945, Archives of the Institute of National Remembrance (AIPN), Komisja dla Badania Zbrodni Niemiecko-Hitlerowskich w Oświęcimiu 1945 r. 169/1.

23   Minutes of the meeting of the advisory committee of the Special Commission for Care of Former Prisoners of German Concentration and Labour Camps, 11 May 1945, AAN, MPiOS 386.

24   Report on the work of the Special Commissioner for Care of Former Prisoners of German Concentration Camps and Labour Camps based in Kraków, 1 Jun. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 385; Minutes of the meeting of the advisory committee of the Special Commission for Care of Former Prisoners of German Concentration and Labour Camps, 11 May 1945, AAN, MPiOS 386.

25   Report on the work of the Special Commissioner for Care of Former Prisoners of German Concentration Camps and Labour Camps based in Kraków, 1 Jun. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 385. For comparison, in 1945, white bread cost 30 zlotys, one egg 6-7 zlotys, a litre of milk 60 zlotys, and a kilogram of meat 150-250 zlotys.

26   Report on the work of the Special Commissioner for Care of Former Prisoners of German Concentration Camps and Labour Camps based in Kraków, 1 Jun. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 385.

27   Ibid.; Minutes of the meeting of the advisory committee of the Special Commission for Care of Former Prisoners of German Concentration and Labour Camps, 11 May 1945, AAN, MPiOS 386.

28   Kersten, Repatriacja, p. 94.

29   The description of organisations and the repatriation campaign that follows is largely based on the findings of Kersten: Repatriacja, pp. 67-153, 207-225.

30   Lagrou, The Legacy of Nazi Occupation, pp. 91-105.

31   Kersten, Repatriacja, pp. 170ff.

32   Report of Tadeusz Leszczyński on the work of the Office of the Plenipotentiary for Returnees Arriving from Germany for the period 28 May–15 Jul. 1945, 26 Jul. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 389.

33   District Committee for Social Welfare in Sanok to the MPiOS, 18 Jun. 1945, AAN, MPi-OS 386.

34   Rumowska to the Minister for Social Care, 12 Jul. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 389.

35   Letter from Z. Kieresiński, Polish camp in the Boot Schule, Neustadt (Holstein) 20-21 Aug. 1945. Quoted after: Kersten, Repatriacja, p. 105.

36   Quoted after: Kersten, Repatriacja, p. 105.

37   “Polska nie wyrzeknie się nawet tych, którzy dziś nie chcą wracać do kraju. Rozmowa z Gen. Pełnomocnikiem Rządu dla Spraw Repatriacji wicem. Wolskim”, Dziennik Polski, 13 Aug. 1946.

38   Resolution of the Council of Ministers of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Poland in the matter of providing care to those returning from Nazi camps, 26 May 1945, AAN, URM 5/1097 (mcf. 23154); Excerpt from the minutes of a meeting of the Council of Ministers, 26 May 1945, AAN, Ministerstwo Administracji Publicznej (MAP) 2441 (mcf. B-47169); Minutes from a conference on the subject of returnees from Germany, 28 May 1945, AAN, PUR, Wydz. Ogólny II/17.

39   Kersten, Repatriacja, p. 93.

40   Final report on the work during the period 25 May–20 Sep. 1945 on the campaign to assist returnees from Nazi camps, 25 Sep. 1945, AAN, MPiSO 389.

41   Official letter from the District Committee for Social Welfare in Sanok, 18 Jun. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 386.

42   Report from the tour of the Plenipotentiary for Returnees Arriving from Germany, Tadeusz Leszczyński, and the chief executive of the Central Committee for Social Welfare (CKOS), Adam Kuryłowicz, 10-19 Jun. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 389.

43   Minutes from the meeting of the Council of Ministers, 19 Feb. 1945, AAN, URM 5/1097 (mcf. 23154).

44   Appeal to Polish society, no date, AAN, MPiOS 386.

45   Interview with Krystyna T. conducted by the author, Warsaw, 17 Nov. 2006 (author’s own recording).

46   Minutes of the conference on the provision of care to Poles returning from the West, Śląsko-Dąbrowski Provincial Office, 14 Jun. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 385.

47   Minutes of the meeting of the advisory committee of the Special Commission for Care of Former Prisoners of German Concentration and Labour Camps, 11 May 1945, AAN, MPiOS 386.

48   Report from a conference at the Dept of Labour and Social Care at the Kraków Provincial Office, 15 Jun. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 385.

49   Report of Tadeusz Leszczyński on the work of the Office of the Plenipotentiary for Returnees Arriving from Germany for the period 28 May–15 Jul. 1945, 26 Jul. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 389.

50   Interview with Krystyna T.

51   Maria Jezierska, “Obrachunek”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 1 Sep. 1946.

52   Dept of Social Care at the Pomeranian Provincial Office to the MPiOS, 15 Dec. 1945, AAN, MPiOS 388.

53   Maria Jezierska, “Obrachunek”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 1 Sep. 1946.

54   Inaugural speech of W. Lewandowski at the organisational meeting of the Association of Former Political Prisoners of Concentration Camps, dated 27 June, probably delivered on 25 Aug. 1945, AAN, PZbWP 101.

55   “Praca ROS na przestrzeni roku”, Wolni Ludzie, 11 Apr. 1948; Report of the Executive Board (ZG) of the PZbWP to the Concessionary Council, Nov. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 38; ZG PZbWP to the Central Commission Coordinating Civic Organisations in Warsaw, 23 Sep. 1948, AAN, PZbWP 17.

56   Alina Tetmajer, “Walczymy z gruźlicą”, Wolni Ludzie, 1 Jan. 1948; “Działalność opiekuńcza PZbWP”, Wolni Ludzie, 30 Jun.–15 Jul. 1949.

57   On the subject of the work of the team under Antoni Kępiński see, inter alia: Foreword by Zdzisław Ryn to Antoni Kępiński, Refleksje oświęcimskie, compiled and introduced by Zdzisław Ryn, Kraków 2005, pp. 5-8; Maria Orwid, Przeżyć... I co dalej? Interview conducted by Katarzyna Zimmerer and Krzysztof Szwajca, Kraków 2006, pp. 159-179.

58   Czesław Kempisty, “Stan zdrowia byłych więźniów ze środowiska wrocławskiego”, Zeszyty lekarskie Oświęcim, no. 1, Yr XXIII, series II (1967), pp. 96-98.

59   Ideological declaration appended to the statute of the Temporary Association of Political Prisoners of the Majdanek Concentration Camp in 1944, AIPN, Komenda Główna Milicji Obywatelskiej (KG MO) 35/1791.

60   Report of the Organisational Dept on the work of the PZbWP for the period from the establishment of the association to 30 Jun. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 18; Interim regulations of the section for families of deceased political prisoners of the Tarnów branch of the Association of Former Ideological and Political Prisoners from the 1939-1945 War, 14 Sep. 1945, AAN, PZbWP 153; Association of Former Ideological and Political Prisoners to its Śląsko-Dąbrowski provincial branch, 20 Aug. 1945, AAN, PZbWP 142; Report on the work of the PZbWP in the Pomeranian province in the years 1945-1949, 30-31 Jul. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 2.

61   Report of the secretary of the Gdańsk branch of the PZbWP, Warsaw, 30-31 Jul. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 2; Shorthand minutes of the national session of the PZbWP, Warsaw 30-31 Jul. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 2; Statute of the Association of Former Political Prisoners from the German Occupation of the Republic of Poland in the Years 1939-1945, AAN, PZbWP 9; A. Okręg, “Zarys powstania i działalności Związku w Poznaniu i Wielkopolsce”, Nie-złomni (Jednodniówka z okazji manifestacyjnego zjazdu byłych więźniów politycznych w Poznaniu 6-7.10.1946), AAN, MPiOS 321; Minutes of a meeting of the Commission for the Investigation of German Nazi Crimes in Auschwitz, 18 Apr. 1945, AIPN, Komisja dla Badania Zbrodni Niemiecko-Hitlerowskich w Oświęcimiu 1945 r. 169/1.

62   Statute of the Association of Former Ideological and Political Prisoners from the 1939-1945 War, no date, AAN, PZbWP 9.

63   Minutes of the first organisational meeting of the Association of Former Political Prisoners of Concentration Camps for the Gdańsk province, 25 Aug. 1945, AAN, PZbWP 101.

64   Inaugural speech of W. Lewandowski at the organisational meeting of the Association of Former Political Prisoners of Concentration Camps in Sopot, dated 27 June, probably delivered on 25 Aug. 1945, AAN, PZbWP 101.

65   Statute of the Association of Former Political Prisoners from the German Occupation of the Republic of Poland in the Years 1939-1945, AAN, PZbWP 9.

66   Report of the Organisational Dept on the work of the PZbWP for the period from the establishment of the association to 30 Jun. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 18; “Ogólnopolski kongres b. więźniów zakończony. Uchwalenie deklaracji członkowskiej i wniosków—wybory władz”, Dziennik Ludowy, 5 Feb. 1946.

67   “Des associations nationales des anciens prisonniers politiques et des délégués á la conférence des représentants des délégations nationales”, no date, AAN, PZbWP 62; ZG PZbWP to the Gdańsk branch of the PZbWP, 13 May 1947, AAN, PZbWP 62.

68   Interview with Józef S., Warsaw, 10 Apr. 2006 (author’s own recording).

69   Report of the Organisational Dept on the work of the PZbWP for the period from the establishment of the association to 30 Jun. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 18.

70   “Protokół nr 1 z posiedzenia Sekretariatu KC PPR odbytego w dniu 12 stycznia 1946 r.” in Protokoły z posiedzeń sekretariatu KC PPR 1945-1946, compiled by Aleksander Kochański, Warszawa 2001, pp. 153-154.

71   Interview with Krystyna T.

72   Minutes of the meeting of the Executive Board of the Kraków Branch of the Association of Former Ideological and Political Prisoners 1939-1945, 11 Feb. 1946, AAN, PZbWP 143.

73   Statute of the Polish Association of Former Political Prisoners of Nazi Prisons and Concentration Camps (PZbWP), Warsaw 1946, AAN, PZbWP 9.

74   Report on the work of the PZbWP for the period from the establishment of the association to 30 Jun. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 18; Shorthand minutes of the national session of the PZbWP, Warsaw 30-31 Jul. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 2; ZG PZbWP to the FIAPP, Oct. 1948, AAN, PZbWP 17; “Praca ROS na przestrzeni roku”, Wolni Ludzie, 11 Apr. 1948; Report of the ZG PZbWP for the Concessionary Council, Oct. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 38; ZG PZbWP to the Central Commission Coordinating Civic Organisations in Warsaw, 23 Sep. 1948, AAN, PZbWP 17; “Nowe zadania Związku”, Wolni Ludzie, 1-15 Jul. 1948.

75   Minutes of the meeting of the Supreme Council (RN) of the PZbWP, 10 Oct. 1948, AAN, PZbWP 4.

76   Shorthand minutes of the national session of the PZbWP, Warsaw 30-31 Jul. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 2.

77   “Ogólnopolski kongres b. więźniów zakończony. Uchwalenie deklaracji członkowskiej i wniosków—wybory władz”, Dziennik Ludowy, 5 Feb. 1946.

78   “Apel FIAPP do wszystkich narodów miłujących pokój”, Wolni Ludzie, 1 Sep. 1947.

79   Report of the ZG PZbWP for the Concessionary Council, Oct. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 38.

80   Report of the ZG PZbWP for the Concessionary Council, Oct. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 38; Report of the PZbWP regarding social health in 1947, no date, AAN, PZbWP 17. See also: Alina Tetmajer, “Rozwijajmy dalej naszą pracę”, Wolni Ludzie, 1 Dec. 1947; Alina Tetmajer, “Walczymy z gruźlicą”, Wolni Ludzie, 1 Jan. 1948; “Jeszcze o stypendiach”, Wolni Ludzie, 1-15 Feb. 1948; “Praca ROS na przestrzeni roku”, Wolni Ludzie, 11 Apr. 1948.

81   AAN, PZbWP 38: Minutes of the meeting of the special committee to establish the percentage share in profits from the alcohol licences held by ZIW, ZUWZoNiD, PZbWP, and the Association of Veterans of the Silesian Insurrections (ZWPŚ), 12 Aug. 1946; Minutes of a joint meeting of the PZbWP, ZIW, ZUWZoNiD, 1 Dec. 1946; Minutes of a meeting of the Presidium of the ZG PZbWP, 21 Feb. 1947.

82   Record of a conversation between Maria Mazurkiewicz and a representative of the ZG ZIW, Col. Kiełczyński, 11 Oct. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 38.

83   “CHD przekształca się w spółdzielnię”, Wolni Ludzie, 1 Jan. 1948.

84   ZG PZbWP to the MPiOS, Aug. 1948, AAN, PZbWP 17; “Nowe zadania Związku”, Wolni Ludzie, 1-15 Jul. 1948.

85   Account given by Stanisława Imiołek, Collections of the Karta Centre, ISFLDP 058, transcription of the interview, p. 19.

86   Directorate of the Polish Tobacco Monopoly to ZIW, ZUWZoNiD, PZbWP, 14 Dec. 1946, AAN, PZbWP 38.

87   “Palace—Sanatorium pracy”, Wolni Ludzie, 1 Jan. 1948; “Praca ROS na przestrzeni roku”, Wolni Ludzie, 11 Apr. 1948; “Działalność opiekuńcza PZbWP”, Wolni Ludzie, 30 Jun.–15 Jul. 1949.

88   AAN, Ministerstwo Kultury i Sztuki (MKiS), Centralny Zarząd Muzeów (CZM), Wydz. Muzeów i Pomników Walki z Faszyzmem 31: PZbWP Branch Executive Board in Gdańsk to the Provincial Land Office (copy), 18 Apr. 1946; PZbWP Branch Executive Board in Gdańsk to the Provincial Property Management Board (copy), 29 Aug. 1946; ZG PZbWP to the National Directorate for Museums and Conservation affiliated to the MKiS, 30 Sep. 1946. Minutes of the meeting of the PZbWP Medical Committee, 31 Oct. 1946, AAN, PZbWP 33; PZbWP Branch Executive Board in Gdańsk to the ZG PZbWP, 24 Feb. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 108.

89   Minutes of the meeting of the PZbWP Medical Committee, 31 Oct. 1946, AAN, PZbWP 33. AAN, PZbWP 108: ROS to the ZG PZbWP, 16 Jul. 1947; Report on the inspection of the campaign to dispose of former German property in the former Stutthof concentration camp, no date.

90   The camp extension constituted 20 buildings erected in the years 1942-1944 on the premises of the main camp. These are currently military barracks and private homes. Very few people know that these buildings were constructed while the camp was still in operation (Auschwitz 1940-1945, Vol. 1, pp. 58-59).

91   Planning principles of the museum in the former concentration camp at Auschwitz, no date, AAN, PZbWP 13; “Oświęcim w krwi i walce. Jak będzie wyglądało muzeum”, Wolni Ludzie, 15 Jun. 1947; Stanisław Stomma, “Problem Oświęcimia”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 6 Jul. 1947.

92   Irena Grzesiuk-Olszewska, Polska rzeźba pomnikowa, Warszawa 1995, pp. 43-45.

93   Bernard Fuksiewicz, “Nasze zadania”, Wolni Ludzie, 19-31 Dec. 1947.

94   “Nowe zadania Związku”, Wolni Ludzie, 1-15 Jul. 1948.

95   Ibid. Cf. also: Krystyna Żywulska, “Sprawy najważniejsze”, Wolni Ludzie, 15-30 Dec. 1948; idem, “Nasz głos”, Wolni Ludzie, 1-15 Apr. 1949.

96   Report from the congress of presidents and delegates of former political prisoners’ organisations, 10 Jan. 1946, AAN, PZbWP 1.

97   “B. więźniowie awangardą walki z faszyzmem. Rezolucje kongresu b. więźniów politycznych obozów niemieckich”, Życie Warszawy, 6 Feb. 1946.

98   Report of the PZbWP for the year 1947 for the Concessionary Council, no date, AAN, PZbWP 17.

99   Minutes of the meeting of the RN PZbWP, 28 May 1947, AAN, PZbWP 4; Minutes of the meeting of the ZG PZbWP, 31 May 1947, AAN, PZbWP 5; Report of the Organisational Dept on the work of the PZbWP for the period from the establishment of the association in 1945 to 30 Jun. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 18.

100 Personnel of the ZG PZbWP leadership, no date, AAN, PZbWP 11.

101 Minutes of a meeting of the PPR caucus in the ZG PZbWP, 4 Nov. 1948, AAN, PZbWP 40.

102 Data on the PZbWP leadership in the various districts, no date, AAN, PZbWP 11.

103 Leadership personnel lists for the local and district branches of the PZbWP, no date, AAN, PZbWP 11.

104 Leadership personnel list for the Kraków Branch of the PZbWP, 31 Mar. 1948 (Branch leadership appointed 27 Jun. 1947), AAN, PZbWP 144.

105 AAN, PZbWP 144: Leadership personnel list for the Kraków Branch of the PZbWP, 1 Oct. 1948 (Branch leadership appointed 26 Sep. 1948); Leadership personnel list for the Krakow Branch of the PZbWP, 30 Jun. 1949.

106 Minutes of the PZbWP Branch congress for the Kraków province, 29 Jun. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 143.

107 Minutes of the general meeting of the Nowy Sącz local branch of the PZbWP, 27 Mar. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 153.

108 Shorthand minutes of the national session of the PZbWP, Warsaw 30-31 Jul. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 2.

109 PZbWP statute, Warsaw 1946, AAN, PZbWP 9.

110 Central Committee (KC) of the PPR to the PPR caucus in the ZG PZbWP, 12 Feb. 1948, AAN, PZbWP 40.

111 Minutes of the meeting of chairmen of the vetting committees for local groups in the Kraków Branch of the PZbWP, 6 Mar. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 151.

112 Shorthand minutes of the national session of the PZbWP, Warsaw 30-31 Jul. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 2.

113 Minutes of the meeting of the PPR caucus in the ZG PZbWP, 4 Nov. 1948, AAN, PZbWP 40.

114 Shorthand minutes of the national session of the PZbWP, Warsaw 30-31 Jul. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 2.

115 For obvious political reasons, prisoners of Soviet camps could not be accepted into the PZbWP.

116 Zofia Mączka of the Vetting Committee of the PZbWP local branch in Kraków to the Central Vetting Committee (GKW), 9 Sep. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 151. Płaszów: Nazi labour camp established in the summer of 1942; in January 1944 it became a concentration camp. Used to incarcerate mainly Jews and Roma. In July 1943 part of the camp was designated as a penal camp for Poles.

117 Circular no. 1 from the GKW to the executive boards of the PZbWP branches, 31 Jul. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 28.

118 Poniatowa: Labour camp for Jews administered by the SS. Operational in the years 1942-1943.

119 On the subject of categorisation of prisoners by the SS, see: Annette Eberle, “Häftlingskategorien und Kennzeichnung” in Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Diestel (eds) Der Ort des Terrors. Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager, München 2005.

120 PZbWP statute, Warsaw 1946, AAN, PZbWP 9.

121 Auschwitz 1940-1945, Vol. 2, p. 22.

122 PZbWP statute, Warsaw 1946, AAN, PZbWP 9.

123 Regulations of the GKW PZbWP, 21 Jun. 1946, AAN, PZbWP 28.

124 See, inter alia: Reports of the branch vetting committees to the GKW, AAN, PZbWP 18; Report of the Executive Board of the Kraków Branch of the PZbWP to the III congress of the Kraków Branch, 29 Jun. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 143; Shorthand minutes of the national session of the PZbWP, Warsaw 30-31 Jul. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 2.

125 Circular no. 1 from the GKW to the executive boards of the PZbWP branches, 31 Jul. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 28.

126 Instruction for vetting committees of local groups and branches of the PZbWP, 1 Dec. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 28.

127 “Kto ma prawo należenia do Związku b. Więźniów Politycznych”, Dziennik Zachodni, 14 Jul. 1948.

128 Shorthand minutes of the national session of the PZbWP, Warsaw 30-31 Jul. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 2.

129 Bolesław Rozmarynowicz, “Więzień Polityczny (artykuł dyskusyjny)”, Wolni Ludzie, 15-31 May 1948.

130 Andrzej Kobyłecki, “To, że ktoś trafił do obozu nie jest niczyją zasługą...”, Wolni Ludzie, 1-15 Jun. 1948.

131 Jan Rompski, “Czy istotnie ‘splot okoliczności’?”, Wolni Ludzie, 15-31 Jul. 1948.

132 Kobyłecki, “Czy istotnie ‘splot okoliczności’? W odpowiedzi kol. Rompskiemu”, Wolni Ludzie, 1-15 Aug. 1948.

133 Minutes of the meeting of the RN PZbWP, 10 Oct. 1948, AAN, PZbWP 4; “Ważne uchwały Rady Naczelnej”, Wolni Ludzie, 15-30 Oct. 1948.

134 Minutes of the meeting of the RN PZbWP, 10 Oct. 1948, AAN, PZbWP 4.

135 Report of the Organisational Dept on the work of the PZbWP for the period from the establishment of the association to 30 Jun. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 18.

136 Minutes of the meeting of the PPR caucus in the ZG PZbWP, 28 Oct. 1948, AAN, PZbWP 40.

137 KC PPR to the PPR caucus in the ZG PZbWP, 12 Feb. 1948, AAN, PZbWP 40.

138 Minutes of the meeting of the Presidium of the ZG PZbWP, 16 Sep. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 5.

139 Zygmunt Balicki, “Międzynarodowy dzień b. Więźniów”, Wolni Ludzie, 11 Apr. 1948.

140 The editors-in-chief of Wolni Ludzie were, in order: Antoni Kobyłecki, Sergiusz Jaśkiewicz, Krystyna Żywulska and Teofil Witek (Minutes of the meeting of the Presidium of the ZG PZbWP, 25 Sep. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 5; Minutes of the meeting of the Presidium of the ZG PZbWP, 23 Feb. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 7; Shorthand minutes of the national session of the PZbWP, Warszawa 30-31 Jul. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 2; Interview with Krystyna T.).

141 Krystyna T. claims that the charges against Jaśkiewicz were fabricated and served only as a pretext for his arrest (Interview with Krystyna T.).

142 Shorthand minutes of the national session of the PZbWP, Warsaw 30-31 Jul. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 2.

143 See, inter alia: “Front był tam, gdzie byli antyfaszyści. Akcja sabotażowa w Buchenwaldzie”, Wolni Ludzie, 30 Jun.–15 Jul. 1949; “Front był tam, gdzie byli antyfaszyści. Walka ze zdradą w Buchenwaldzie”, B. Szerląg (ed.) on the basis of reminiscences of H. Sokolak, Wolni Ludzie, 15-30 Jul. 1949; Mieczysław Kowalski, “Front był tam, gdzie byli antyfaszyści, Polska Partia Robotnicza w Buchenwaldzie”, Wolni Ludzie, 15-31 Aug. 1949.

144 Krystyna Kersten, Narodziny systemu władzy. Polska 1943-1948, Poznań 1990, p. 20; Andrzej Friszke, Polska. Losy państwa i narodu, Warszawa 2003, p. 68.

145 On the subject of the resistance movement in Buchenwald and the role played in it by German Communists, see, inter alia: Der „gesäuberte” Antifaschismus. Die SED und die roten Kapos von Buchenwald, Lutz Niethammer (ed.), Berlin 1994; Karin Hartewig, “Wolf unter Wölfen? Die prekäre Macht der kommunistischen Kapos im Konzentrationslager Buchenwald” in Ulrich Herbert, Karin Orth and Christoph Dickmann (eds) Die nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager. Entwicklung und Struktur, Vol. 2, Göttingen 1998; Volkhard Knigge, Rikola-Gunner Lüttgenau, Bodo Ritscher and Harry Stein, Konzentrationslager Buchenwald 1937-1945. Speziallager Nr. 2 1945-1950. Zwei Lager an einem OrtGeschichte und Erinnerungskonstruktion, Weimar–Buchenwald 1998, pp. 47-52.

146 Paradoxically, at the moment of their publication, the Buchenwald Communists were blacklisted in East Germany. They had fallen victim to internecine struggles between the “Moscow group”, centred around Walter Ulbricht, and those activists of the KPD who had spent the period of the Third Reich either in emigration in the West or in Nazi concentration camps. In the years 1949–1955 many of them were removed from important posts in the party and the administration, and some faced charges regarding their actions in Buchenwald.

147 Mariusz Kwiatkowski, “Majdanek 1941-1944”, Za Wolność i Lud, 1-15 Apr. 1950.

148 Shorthand minutes of the national session of the PZbWP, Warsaw 30-31 Jul. 1949, AAN, PZbWP 2.

149 Ibid.

150 Stanisław Jagielski, Sclavus Saltatus. Wspomnienia lekarza, Warszawa 1946.

151 Stanisław Jagielski, “Odpowiedź—list do Albina Mazurkiewicza”, Wolni Ludzie, 15 Sep. 1947.

152 Edmund Dmitrów, Niemcy i okupacja hitlerowska w oczach Polaków. Poglądy i opinie z lat 1945-1948, Warszawa 1987, pp. 155-162.

153 Ibid., pp. 158-159.

154 Stefan Kisielewski, “Tematy wojenne”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 20 May 1945.

155 Dmitrów, Niemcy i okupacja hitlerowska w oczach Polaków, pp. 157-158.

156 Zofia Starowieyska-Morstinowa, “Temat czy pisarz?”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 24 Jun. 1945; Stanisław Lem, “Jeszcze ‘Ostatni etap’”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 16 May 1948.

157 Bernard Fuksiewicz, “Przed zjednoczeniem bratnich związków”, Wolni Ludzie, 15-31 Aug. 1949; August Grabski, Żydowski ruch kombatancki w Polsce w latach 1944-1949, Warszawa 2002, p. 168.


ISBN (Book)
Open Access
Publication date
2014 (January)
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 311 pp., 22 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Zofia Woycicka (Author)

Zofia Wóycicka studied history and sociology at the University of Warsaw (Poland), where she received her PhD in 2007. In the following years, Wóycicka worked at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Since 2010 she has been Assisting Professor at the Institute of History at the University of Warsaw. Currently she works as curator at the House of European History in Brussels.


Title: Arrested Mourning